The Plague and Allegorical Representation

Summoned to give evidence regarding what was a sort of crime, he has exercised the restraint that behooves a conscientious witness. All the same, following the dictates of his heart, he has deliberately taken the victims’ side and tried to share with his fellow citizens the only certitudes they had in common—love, exile, and suffering. Thus he can truly say there was not one of their anxieties in which he did not share, no predicament of theirs that was not his.

These words, coming toward the end of Albert Camus’ 1948 allegory of German occupation, The Plague, serve as both the revelation of the novel’s narrator* and the mission statement of its author. The Plague is at once a very informative and very misleading title, for the novel is, practically, about a plague that overtakes the Algerian city of Oran. Theoretically, however, the novel is less about disease than about the mental shackles placed on an imprisoned population, with the plague acting as a stand-in for the occupation of France during World War II.**

*Shh…it’s kind of a secret. And I mean “kind of” here literally, in that it’s only “kind of” a secret.

**Funny story: I first read The Plague in high school on my own with no knowledge or inference of its allegory, even though it was pretty explicit upon my re-reading in college. It is a testament to Camus’ abilities as a writer that the novel works regardless.

More than that, though, The Plague represents Camus’ attempt to define an era, one that helped define him and, more or less, all of Europe. And what Camus tried to do remains relevant today, and not just because of fears surrounding the H1N1 Virus.

In the now-eight years since 9/11, we have been inundated with dozens of books claiming to accurately encompass what life in America has become since that rather sunny Tuesday morning. Authors as diverse as Don DeLillo, Jonathan Safran Foer, Joseph O’Neill, and most recently, Lorrie Moore have all tackled the post-9/11 novel in wildly different forms, ranging from the explicit to the latent, from the adult to the juvenile. The sundry iterations of the 9/11 novel begs that question of epochal representation.

Like 9/11, World War II inspired its own diverse attempts to capture history artistically and literarily. Camus’ novel would be followed by fellow existentialist* Simone de Beauvoir’s thinly disguised roman-a-clef, The Mandarins, in 1954. Camus’ rival Jean-Paul Sartre published a trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom, before 1950. Even decades later, Art Spiegelman would attempt to articulate the horrors of the Holocaust in the graphic novel, Maus.

*Although Camus himself would cringe at the categorization.

The Plague has been justly questioned for the correspondence it sets up between the very conscious occupation of France by Nazis and the less agentive occupation by a disease. Roland Barthes mocked the “morality of solidarity” that Camus proposed in the novel as ineffective against the “very human evil of war.”

What sets The Plague apart from its literary brethren and from the critiques of men like Barthes, however, is Camus’ focus not on the cause of imprisonment, but on its effects. Camus lays it all out there fairly early in the novel:

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise…. How should they have given any thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.

Here, Camus connects pestilence and war pretty explicitly. The two each emerge unsolicited (at least by the common man) and become ubiquitous. Life during the plague is defined by the plague in the same way that life during war is defined by the war. The future becomes even more abstract and distant, and the idea of “freedom” is either bastardized or becomes obsolete altogether.

Camus understands that the true essence of occupation emerges from uncertainty—the never knowing if and when it will all be over—and the subsequent onset of indifference. He explores these paralyzing effects—the lack of freedom, the lack of a future, and the lack of any explanation for “Why me?”*—through his quintet of diverse characters: Dr. Rieux, the dispassionate voice of reason during an unreasonable time; Rambert, the rash journalist who despite not being from Oran becomes the most emotionally invested in the plague; Tarrou, a perfectionist writer who provides both comic relief and brief moments of enlightenment; Grand, the unassertive civil servant who assists Dr. Rieux (and who probably would have gone the other way had he been a German); and Cottard, who embraces the plague as an opportunity to redefine his role in life (and to make some profit).

*And if you think the answer to this last question is “Because I’m French,” well, you run into deeper issues such as “Why did my time as a Frenchman just have to coincide with some German guy’s desire for global conquest and not, say, with the reign of Louis XIV, when, by most accounts, life in France was fairly enjoyable?”

These characters are bound by their fight against an irrational and indiscriminate foe, and the novel’s heart lay in tender moments of human connection that imbue it with a universality that transcends its albeit significant historical context. The Plague, in dissecting what it means to be trapped, explores what it really means to be free. The only certitudes are the ones described by the narrator in the epigram, the ones that could just as easily be culled from Camus’ Resistance journalism: love, exile, and suffering. They are the liberty, equality, and fraternity of the Resistance, and they also happen to be far more abundant in actual existence.

And so, eight years later, we’re still waiting for the 9/11 novel, just like, almost 50 years later, we’re still waiting for another Camus.

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