I am late with this post. I wrote this review on May 2.
In the North African town of Oran, rats begin to come out of hiding and die in the streets. Shortly thereafter, residents, in ever-increasing numbers, fall ill with a mysterious fever. As these stricken townsfolk die, Dr. Bernard Rieux recognizes they have contracted the bubonic plague. The city is shut down. Guards are posted at all the gates so no one can enter or leave. Rieux devotes himself to alleviating the suffering of the sick as much as he is able, painfully aware that the city is at the mercy of a scourge for which he has no cure. He “fights against a creation which allows children to suffer and die.”
I first read this novel when I was twenty years old, more than five decades ago, and I still have that paperback copy, its pages yellow with age, passages marked that I read and re-read for years afterward. On that first reading, I remember being shaken to my core. After all, I was a student in a Catholic seminary at the time, and this book challenged all I thought I knew about life. This past month I asked myself, “Will it still resonate? Does it have something to say to our quarantined life?”
At first, I was doubtful. I had forgotten how glacially slow the novel is at the outset. But then, about midway through, the prose becomes poetic, as the characters begin to struggle with their moral dilemmas. As Rieux’s friend Tarrou observes:
“I know positively…that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him…The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is he who has the fewest lapses of attention.”
I wept again at the death of the young boy Philippe, whose “long, incessant scream” is “the angry death-cry that has sounded through the ages of mankind.” I felt the slim encouragement Rieux offers us, when he comments that in time of pestilence, we learn “there is more to admire in men than to despise.” In our own time of quarantine, I wholeheartedly agreed with his pronouncement that “a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.”
I confess I read the last third of the book through tear-dimmed eyes. One passage in particular, which documents Tarrou’s death, made me think of the extraordinary efforts of our own caregivers fighting COVID-19, and the emergency room doctor, Lorna Breen, who took her own life when, as her sister said, she was “in an untenable situation.”
“This human form, his friend’s, lacerated by the spear-thrusts of the plague, consumed by searing, superhuman fires, buffeted by all the raging winds of heaven, was foundering under his eyes in the dark flood of the pestilence, and he could do nothing to avert the wreck. He could only stand, unavailing, on the shore, empty-handed and sick at heart, unarmed and helpless yet again under the onset of calamity.”
Ultimately, The Plague is a meditation on the meaning of life and death. It examines the behavior of human beings in the face of ineluctable destiny. Some act heroically; others are driven mad.
No, this is not light reading, but you will be rewarded handsomely for your efforts.