“The Plague” by Albert Camus: The Basic Existential Principles

The Plague by Albert Camus is a unique novel, one of the best literary works in existential literature. The main character Dr. Rieux embodies the Camusian principles of existentialism, preaching and putting into practice the philosophy of opposition to social, political, and religious norms (Anene et al. 3). Other heroes are of equal importance, and each of them embodies some super-idea. For example, Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest, symbolizes an orthodox principle in the Christian Church, while Tarrou acts as a mystic, a stranger who may not abide by common rules (Tuffuor 400; Cervo 171). This paper argues that Albert Camus successfully uses heroes’ characters to convey the basic existential principles in The Plague.

In the novel, Camus describes an epidemic of the bubonic plague that swept the small town of Oran on the Mediterranean coast. The town inhabitants became hostages of the new rules of life in society, introduced for the common good. These rules were extremely restrictive and most residents were not mentally prepared to deal with the pains of the epidemic (Camus 136). However, some heroes find existential meaning for themselves in new conditions. According to Camus, the power and possibility of acquiring such meaning are due to the ability to act and resist conformist tendencies.

The novel is extremely multifaceted, and each reader discovers the aspects that resonate with their perception. One interesting and important perspective is the principle of so-called Camusian existentialism. The protagonist of the novel, Dr. Rieux, is the ideal embodiment of the idea of existentialism, and his life reflections and choices illustrate the basic principles of Camus’s philosophical position. He opposes the conformity of religion as presented by the priest Paneloux. Dr. Rieux also finds an opportunity to resist social and political demands. An alternative to the conformist worldview is the belief that the fight against death is the only way to give life an existential fullness. Rieux also finds an alternative to the conformist lifestyle in actively helping others.

The doctor’s decisions are a rather mundane reaction to the reality of the horror of the plague, which is supposed to be more dramatic than depicted by Camus. However, the basis of existentialism is realism, and Camus refrains from exaggerating. If the heroes’ fate is the examination of their existential success, Rieux can hardly be called the winner. Like other townspeople, he resigns himself to the impossibility of a final victory, finding solace in the monotonous daily work of conformist society (Tuffuor 400). Rieux rises only a little above the faceless gray surface of the walls of the enchanted city.

He defends the idea of rescue and survival and receives survival. He denies love as a higher power, which is even more important than compassion and struggle – and he finds himself deprived of love at the end of the novel (Camus 229). Perhaps this turn in the plot is an attempt by Camus to leave room for criticism of the unambiguity of the doctor’s position and, accordingly, the unambiguity of the ideas of ‘pure’ existentialism.

The idea of existentialism is revolutionary in that it refutes orthodox religious dogmas. Existentialism is not interested in questions of God or faith, as its main focus is on how a person can be happy in the conditions in which they found themselves (Anene et al. 4). Therefore, for existentialists, it is not the refutation of religious principles that is important, but the quality of the alternative that comes to replace them. According to Camus, the main criterion for the strength of a person’s spirit is making personal decisions and taking responsibility for their lives (Anene et al. 5). The novel shows the doctor’s contempt for the orthodox ideas, since, according to Rieux, the idea of an omnipotent compassionate God who looks at human suffering with a smile is absurd.

Interestingly, critics find rare elements of magical or at least more dramatic depiction of events in The Plague. Cervo presents an interesting discussion of the characters of Tarrou and his neighbor Cottard (169). Dr. Rieux considers suicide to be a sign of weakness, and therefore, from his point of view, Cottard looks like a failure (171). However, Cottard, even in his suspicious and philistine manner, represents a more non-conformist, perhaps a more romantic figure, since life for him is something of a game. This is evidenced by the inscription in red chalk on the door of Cottard – “Come in, I hanged myself,” and the ‘play on words’ between Cottard and Tarrou (Cervo 170). Cottard lacks the clarity of thought and willpower that Dr. Rieux has, but perhaps it is no coincidence that Camus depicts him as constantly resisting public opinion.

For example, when a plague takes over a city, Cottard rejoices in this fact since, in turmoil, he can probably avoid police pursuit. His suicide attempt was not caused by depression due to the epidemic but by the fear of police persecution. Some critics consider Cottard to be isolated from society, but in fact, his figure could be more existential than Rieux’s, if not weak, in moral attitudes. According to the principle of retribution, Cottard eventually dies at the hands of the police, thus avoiding contact with the chaos of the plague but unable to withstand the fight with the chaos of life.

Tarrou is a truly interesting figure and one of Dr. Rieux’s few friends. His interactions with Cottard demonstrate the deep compassionate nature of Tarrou, who tries to support his neighbor in a moment of great pain and sadness. Tarrou, whose name may also be a reference to tarot cards, another mystical symbol, comes up with a word game to distract Cottard from his sad thoughts. He writes out the French words and emphasizes their Latin roots to cheer Cottard.

Interestingly, Tarrou highlights the Latin roots of the words in blue, a symbol of appeasement, and the French endings in red – the color of life, and pain and a symbol of the plague. According to Cervo, red is associated with the plague since priest Paneloux compares the disease with the red spear of Lucifer (170). Interestingly, the bright – albeit significantly pale – images and symbols of magical realism and romanticism can be easily contrasted with the clear, colorless existential symbols of the plague.

The plague, however, is associated with the gray color of the rats and fleas that spread it across the dirty streets of the city, and the dark red color of wounds, symbolizing death. Such a contrast may be intentional since Camus is trying to demonstrate how the epidemic has deprived the townspeople of contact with the entire colorful outside world, leaving them at the mercy of survival.

Thus, it was described how Albert Camus uses heroes’ characters to convey the basic existential principles in The Plague. Dr. Rieux, his life choices, and his philosophy are an example of pure existentialism. Father Paneloux is a dramatic figure, expressing the ideas of orthodox Christianity. At the same time, Cottard can be considered a romantic figure, while Tarrou is a character that has a lot in common with magical realism. The last three heroes die and, therefore, cannot be considered winners, which is a great sin from the point of view of existentialism. It can be assumed that Albert Camus deliberately demonstrates how the plague erases all differences, leaving alive only those who manage to find answers to its unspoken demands.

Works Cited

Anene Ezeugwu, Cindy, et al. “Sequence of Conformism and Revolt in Albert Camus’ The Plague: A Psycho-Analytical Confrontation of Religious Exploitation in the Contemporary Society.” Cogent Arts & Humanities, vol. 9, no. 1, 2022, pp. 1-12.

Camus, Albert. Plague. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2021.

Cervo, Nathan A. “Camus’ the Plague.” The Explicator, vol. 62, no. 3, 2004, pp. 169-172.

Tuffuor, Akosua N., and Richard Payne. “Isolation and Suffering Related to Serious and Terminal Illness: Metaphors and Lessons From Albert Camus’ Novel, The Plague.” Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, vol. 54, no. 3, 2017, pp. 400-403.

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