There is a scene in The Plague, the relentessly grim post-war novel by existential icon Albert Camus, that still shocks: the hopeless, tortured death struggle of a beloved child – made worse by his father’s plea to the protagonist Dr. Rieux to “save my boy.” It’s a scene (and I say “scene” because I find Camus to be deliberately cinematic) that does not dissolve; it remains with anyone who reads it.
The wrestling match with mortality drew me back to Camus recently, perhaps by my own creeping middle age and perhaps by the events of recent years. The war is endless, yet soldiers perservere. They serve and die. Why? This question is at the center of The Plague, where the death count is not man-made at all, but just inherent to the imperfection of life. The standard view of Camus always comes back to this question: if we’re all fated to die anyway, what’s the purpose, what’s the reason?
But that’s too simple, really. It neglects all the flavors of experience in The Plague, which features a wide and interesting group of characters, all trapped in plague-ridden Oran for months. The North African city (as yet unblemished by the violent Arab revolt and French reprisals of a few years later) turns inward upon itself as the bacillus spreads and kills. Camus makes wonderful use of architecture and weather, using the layout of the city to create a vivid portrait of a closed port with armed guards on the city walls.
Further, The Plague is so clearly a post-war work – indeed, it is often at odds with purity of philosophy in Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus essay, which was published in 1942. The long war and its mass murder revelations made the “purely absurd” view of human existence seem frivolous; this is my view, Camus never said it. But there is no view of the trial of Oran’s disease-stricken citizens that suggests pure absuridity, pure existentialism. Indeed, human love is a strong motivator and some characters chart a noble path of sacrifice. Even religion is not entirely mocked; the pompous priest still achieves some respect.