Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Albert Camus, The Plague (1942)

Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) takes the existentialist philosophy and credo that he presented and promoted in The Outsider (1942) and develops it further, giving it a more elaborate and altruistic moral philosophy and exploring its confrontation with the Christian religious cosmology in more depth.  The story features a town, Oran in northern Algeria, which experiences an outbreak of the plague and quarantines itself accordingly. As a consequence, individuals are forced to reflect upon and reconsider their priorities in life when faced with the prospect that their life could end at any moment. 

Existentialism argues that we live in an unpredictable or ‘absurd’ universe, with the only thing that is predictable being mortality.  It therefore tends to draw attention to the prevalence of chance.  In addition, existentialists mistrust all philosophies and religions, believing that the only ideas that you can trust, or that matter, are those experienced directly through your senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell).  The attitude to life that stems from this philosophy is that life is all that you have, and it can end at any moment, so make the most of it while you can.  You should make the most of your life by experiencing things, especially through your senses.  This credo can be summarised as ‘live for the moment’ rather than for the future. 

In addition, existentialists believe that life has no meaning except that which you give it.  Therefore it is up to each individual to define his or her life or existence.  Existentialism promotes the idea that each individual is a free agent who can and should determine what is important to them and the morality by which they should live, regardless of whether or not they are understood by others. 

In this context, the meaning of the novel centres around three meanings of the term ‘the plague’ employed by Camus. Firstly, Camus used the term, ‘the plague’, to represent a pestilence that serves as a manifestation of the ‘absurd’ or unpredictable nature of the universe, a major event that emerges suddenly and unpredictably to change the direction of the lives of individuals to, in turn, force them to reflect upon the quality and meaning of their existence.  Secondly, on another level, Camus uses ‘the plague’ as a metaphor for the Nazi German occupation of France (1940−1944), where he explores the ethics of resistance and collaboration.  As a former member of the French Resistance, Camus recommends resistance as the decent and appropriate response to occupation by a dangerous foreign power yet he does not glorify these efforts.  Instead, he stresses that resistance was simply the natural and decent response and it should be appreciated accordingly, without excessive fanfare.  In addition, Camus makes a genuine attempt to understand the motives of the collaborators in a non-judgemental fashion.  This attitude contrasts with the vengeful victimisation of these people that swept France at the end of the Second World War.  Finally, ‘the plague’ can be understood as a metaphor for inhumanity, specifically the inhumanity of killing other human beings even when it is supposedly for a good cause or for justice.  In this context, Camus uses his novel to express his philosophical reasons for his split from the communists, characterising their revolutionary and potentially totalitarian zeal as just as likely to kill other people as the attitudes that can come from the extreme Right.  To Camus, inhumanity is a plague that can infect the souls of men and the onus is on individuals to resist this infection. 

While the morality that was depicted in The Outsider was subjective and self-interested, in The Plague Camus recognises the human desire and capacity for altruism, thereby elaborating the credo of existentialism as a basis for social interaction.  He also took the opportunity to reject the Christian interpretation of a God-centred and God-directed universe as false, misleading and harmful, upholding rationalism and denouncing the role of religion in society. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: The Plague meaning, The Plague themes, The Plague analysis, The Plague notes