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Literature / The Plague

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A classic 1947 novel by Albert Camus, The Plague (La Peste in French), on the surface, tells the story of an epidemic of the bubonic plague that besets the Algerian city of Oran, imprisoning the citizens behind quarantine. The protagonists, including Dr. Bernard Rieux, a man named Jean Tarrou, a visiting journalist Raymond Rambert, and a city clerk Joseph Grand must respond to the plague and find their place in the ensuing depressing conditions, while philosophizing on the nature of suffering and the proper response thereto.

The plague is generally accepted to be a metaphor for the "brown plague," fascism, which spread throughout Europe in the 30s, and more specifically for the occupation of France by Nazi Germany in 1940. Oran is the equivalent of France: cut off from the outside world, the inhabitants have to choose whether to submit to the inevitability of dying of the plague (the historical inevitability of Germany's dominance) or to fight back against the plague by joining the sanitary teams (the Resistance).

More generally, the book is an allegorical tale in which Camus expounds on his views about the human condition. When the possibility of death at any time makes life absurd, the only thing to do is to give one's life meaning is to rebel against an unjust world, live passionately and strive for freedom.

The novel received a film adaptation in 1992 by Argentine director Luis Puenzo, starring William Hurt, Robert Duvall, and Raúl Juliá, and featuring music by Vangelis.

This novel displays the following tropes:

  • 2 + Torture = 5: Camus wrote, very similarly to Orwell "again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two makes four is punished by death".
  • Anyone Can Die: The narrator makes notations of this frequently about the plague, and extends it to life as a whole via Tarrou's musings about his own life. More literally to the trope, Grand plays with this having a bad bout of plague but coming back around soon, but Dr. Richard, M. Othon, Father Paneloux, and Tarrou are among the narrative's plague casualties. Rieux's wife as well, although not from the Plague.
  • Author Avatar: Rambert, like Camus, is a journalist with a strong sense of justice who has investigated the living conditions of the Arab population of Algeria.
  • Author Tract: Camus exposes his philosophy in a much more explicit way than he did in The Stranger. But this was in some ways necessary as this book serves to exorcise the bitter memories of the Occupation. Plus, the committee for the Nobel Prize for Literature didn't seem to mind.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The plague ends, Rambert reunites with his beloved, but many people die before that happens, including one doctor who once predicted that the plague would end soon, Tarrou and finally Rieux's wife. And Rieux knows that one day, the plague might return.
  • Black Comedy: Unusually for the book, but one particular section does so: Rambert trying to leave Oran. He finds a man who has connections, meets the connections who have insight into the city guard, and two guardsman who are willing to smuggle him out. The plan fails due to one of the guards being replaced due to catching plague, and in order to try again, Rambert has to go back to square one and do the entire process over again, only for it to not pan out as well due to a shift change. Rambert eventually gets fed up with it, and half his reason for staying in Oran is purely because trying to get out is more circuitous than trying to help.
  • Body Horror: To be expected in a work about bubonic plague.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Grand, a rare non-romance (or rather not-just-romance) example.
  • Character Development
    • Rambert is at first desperate to escape the city with any means possible to see his wife again, but he eventually decides to stay and help the people.
    • Othon starts out as a traditional 50s French father, saying impeccably polite and very nasty things to his wife and kids. He gets more emotional, and more altruistic, later in the book after his son dies.
  • Les Collaborateurs: After his suicide attempt, Cottard basically turns into the quintessential Pétain supporter and profits off the plague much in the way collaborators profited from the Nazi Occupation; he is one of the only people who is sad to see the plague go.
  • Death of a Child: The plague doesn't spare children. In a notable case of playing with the trope, when a child who was deemed a hopeless case is spared, it's a sign the plague is on the retreat.
  • Delayed Narrator Introduction: The narrator pointedly refrains from revealing his identity until the end, though the third-person limited Point of View makes it fairly obvious who he is.
  • The Fettered: Tarrou, who dedicated his life to fight against killing, though he later became disillusioned.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Tarrou holds this viewpoint.
    I know positively–-yes, Rieux, I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see-–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 breath in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest-–health, integrity, purity (if you like)-–is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.
  • I Choose to Stay: Rambert goes to great lengths to escape the city, but when he finally is at the brink of achieving his goal, he decides he'd rather stay in Oran and help the protagonists in fighting the plague.
  • Kick the Dog: Cottard shoots one at random in the last scene, though this is not necessarily a sign of evilness, just insanity.
  • Leitmotif: The song "Saint James Infirmary."
  • Lockdown: A city-wide one. The novel explores how this affects the inhabitants psychologically when they are trapped away from their loved ones for months.
  • Narrator All Along: Bernard Rieux.
  • No Antagonist: Unless you count the plague itself, anyway.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Richard and the prefect committee. They dismiss Rieux and Castel's advice, refusing to instate prophylactic measures until they have conclusive proof that the disease is plague (even as Rieux claims that it almost certainly is plague, and estimates that half of Oran's population will be dead within two months).
  • The Plague: Well duh.
  • Police Are Useless: Tarrou at one point remarks "And, anyway, we've never had much use for the police."
  • La Résistance: In the context of the allegory—the plague as the Occupation—the sanitary teams form a resistance that is fighting back against the unspeakable evil of the plague.
  • Shout-Out: To The Stranger - a Frenchman from Algiers who was arrested for shooting an Arab on the beach is mentioned.
  • The Stoic/The Pollyanna: Rieux. He loses the Pollyanna aspects a bit after Tarrou dies.
  • Tragic Bromance: Tarrou and Rieux.