I’ve been re-reading The Plague, giving it a closer read this time as I’m going to be facilitating a small discussion group on the book early next month. Today I’ll write up some of what I noticed this time around.
The Plague was published in , but Camus had been working on it throughout the period of the Nazi occupation of Paris, during which he was also for a time the editor of the underground resistance newspaper Combat.
The Plague as Allegory?
The story — about a horrifying plague that traps and butchers the people of a town — suggests a parable about the Nazi scourging of Europe. And it sometimes seems as though that’s more or less what it is. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s what Camus had in mind when he began the project: an allegory in the Animal Farm vein (in fact, it would be no waste of time to try unraveling the various animal references in The Plague). But he ended up writing a book that’s more interesting and more difficult.
The plague is a symbol of the fascist catastrophe, and it is also a symbol for something lurking in people that the fascist catastrophe is just one particular eruption of. But the plague is also sometimes simply one particular plague. Sometimes it is also a symbol of, and an example of, the fatal destiny we each share as mortals: the plague is mortality itself. And sometimes I think it is a symbol of the post-God Is Dead, cold, mechanistic universe, the end of traditional ideas of free will and meaning, and the threat of isolation and nihilism that results from this. I could not manage to stick with one of these interpretations from start to finish. I had hop from wire to wire as I read.
So I don’t think it’s best to read the book as a parable about any of those things in particular. The book is called The Plague, but it’s really about the people who confront the plague in various ways. Before the plague, the townspeople live in a “feverish yet casual” way: bored, habitual, commercial, “without intimations” of anything more meaningful. During the plague, people have to more consciously decide how they are going to live and what they are going to value.
Depending on which aspects of these responses Camus wants to highlight from case to case, he makes one or more of the symbolic facets of the plague more prominent. There are four cases in particular that are most-developed and most-interesting: those of Bernard Rieux, Jean Tarrou, Raymond Rambert, and Father Paneloux.
Paneloux is a Jesuit — an intellectual, but also a true believer. When the plague begins to strike, he reads it as a warning from God, and sees his task as articulating this warning to the town. He delivers a sermon in which he says God is using the plague as He has used similar calamities in the past — to humble a proud and negligent people into fearing God and renewing their piety.
The plague here represents the problem of evil and Paneloux addresses it in an orthodox way: though the plague seems like an evil thing, it is actually a scourge of wickedness and a goad of faithfulness that will leave things better than they were — in other words, the plague is not evil at all, but actually part of a wholly good divine plan.
Tarrou and Dr. Rieux, both unbelievers, are dismissive of the speech. Tarrou thinks Paneloux is just repeating cant, and if the plague builds to a real disaster, Paneloux will be silenced by the awful reality of it. Rieux says “Christians sometimes say that sort of thing without really thinking it. They’re better than they seem.” He too thinks that should Paneloux turn his face away from doctrine and toward the visceral suffering of plague victims, he would change his tune.
This is indeed what happens, but the tune change is remarkable and unexpected. Paneloux has thrown himself into work with plague sufferers (of this, Rieux remarks: “I’m glad to know he’s better than his sermon”). In one example, which Camus describes particularly thoroughly, the doctors are testing a new serum on a young boy. The treatment seems somewhat promising, but Paneloux, who has been observing the child’s death agonies, says of this: “So if he is to die, he will have suffered longer.” He begs God to spare the child, to no avail.
After the boy dies, Dr. Rieux uncharacteristically blows his cool and confronts Paneloux about how his sermon put the blame for the plague on the townspeople: “That child, anyhow, was innocent.” Paneloux is clearly troubled with the same thought, but in trying to find a way out that preserves his faith, he utters this odd idea: “perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.” (Rieux answers: “I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”)
But Paneloux decides to see how far out on that limb he’s able to go. If the plague cannot be understood to be a good thing as he originally thought, seeing as how it causes such horrible and pointless suffering in the innocent, then the argument in his original sermon is flawed. He composes a second sermon to try to rescue the first one.
In his second sermon, he puts the argument this way: If the universe were comprehensible and just, faith would be easy and of no merit. Because the universe defies comprehension and seems wholly unjust, faith requires you to abandon your aspirations to understand and to judge. Faith requires everything of you: “All or Nothing,” Paneloux says. You have to decide to love God with no hope of understanding Him and with no pretensions to judge aspects of His creation as good or bad. If God wills that an innocent child is to suffer, a Christian must do more than accept it, but must love it and even will it.
This reminds me of Nietzsche’s “amor fati”, and also of Kierkegaard’s infatuation with the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham’s unflinching willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command was evidence to Kierkegaard that faith requires a “suspension of the ethical” and an answer that is “absolutely either yes or no.”
(William S. Burroughs had a more cynical perspective on the suspension of the ethical that sometimes accompanies religious faith: “Never do business with a religious son-of-a-bitch. His word ain’t worth shit — not with the Good Lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal.”)
But Paneloux is serious about this: he encourages his listeners to go all the way out on that limb with him, and, privately, he is trying to work out the ramifications. He’s working on an essay titled “Is a Priest Justified in Consulting a Doctor?” and he evidently concludes that the answer is “no.” If God has willed that a Christian be sick, that Christian should adore being sick.
Paneloux soon has an opportunity to put this to the test. He comes down with a newly-developing variant of the plague, refuses medical help or even the comfort of friends, and dies gripping and gazing at a cross.
Rambert first confronts the plague with denial & bargaining. He’s a journalist who happened to be in town on assignment when the plague hit and the town was sealed. His response: “I don’t belong here.” I’m not from this town, its plague is not my plague. He devotes himself to schemes to escape: first exhausting the unhelpful official bureaucracy and then turning to smugglers.
He begins to develop a guilty conscience as he notices Rieux, Tarrou, Paneloux, and others putting their shoulders to the wheel while he plots to get away. He defends himself by explaining that it isn’t cowardice that’s making him want to flee (he says at one point in his defense that he fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War), but his devotion to his wife.
He has decided that only deeds that are motivated by profound emotion are worthwhile. So he is willing to risk everything to be with his wife again, and is left “cold” by the methodical battle against the plague — a calamity that Rambert characterizes as “the same thing over and over again.”
The others don’t press the point. Rieux, in particular, goes out of his way to say that he does not judge Rambert for his choice: “Rambert had elected for happiness, and he, Rieux, had no argument to put up against him. Personally he felt incapable of deciding which was the right course and which the wrong in such a case as Rambert’s.”
But in fact, Rieux is in such a case, and he did decide on a course. Rieux’s wife was out of town when the plague hit, and they have been separated throughout — and nearly unable to communicate because mail between the town and the outside world has mostly stopped. Furthermore, his wife was in poor health when she left to visit a sanitarium. He later says: “For nothing in the world is it worth turning one’s back on what one loves. Yet that is what I’m doing, though why I do not know.” When Rambert eventually learns that Rieux shares his plight, this increases his feelings of guilt.
The night before Rambert is to leave on his long-plotted escape he stays at the home of two accomplices and is left with their mother. Rambert explains to her that he’s leaving in spite of the risk to himself (and possibly to his wife, if he carries the plague with him), because “if he stayed in the town, there was a fair chance of their never seeing each other again.”
The old woman smiled. “Is she nice?”
“I think so.”
“Ah,” she nodded, “that explains it.”
Rambert reflected. No doubt that explained it, but it was impossible that that alone explained it.
The old woman went to Mass every morning. “Don’t you believe in God?” she asked him.
On Rambert’s admitting he did not, she said again that “that explained it.” “Yes,” she added, “you’re right. You must go back to her. Or else — what would be left you?”
Rambert decides at the last minute to stay and help fight the plague after all. At first, he explains this using the same devotional worldview he had before: “if he went away, he would feel ashamed of himself, and that would embarrass his relations with the woman he loved.”
But Rieux insists that there’s “nothing shameful in preferring happiness” (Rieux has been privately rooting for Rambert’s escape, perhaps as an embodiment of his own path-not-taken). Rambert replies that “it may be shameful to be happy by oneself”:
Until now I always felt a stranger in this town, and that I’d no concern with you people. But now that I’ve seen what I have seen, I know that I belong here whether I want it or not. This business is everybody’s business.
I saw Rambert as something like a secular equivalent of Paneloux. Instead of devoting himself to God above all else (including above ethics), he devotes himself to his wife — or perhaps to his devotion to his wife (he notes at one point that he’s become so wrapped up in the quest to get back to her that he’s almost stopped thinking of her). “The old woman” points this out to him: Rambert must go back to his wife because, since he has no god, she’s the only thing that makes anything matter: without her, he’d be adrift, without purpose and a stranger to everyone.
But while Paneloux decided to push on, make his devotion ever more encompassing, and renounce the world, Rambert turns back, decides to take responsibility for the world, and situates his devotion in a worldview that also allows for ethics and comradery.
So if Paneloux suspended the ethical in the name of faith, and if Rambert reintegrated the ethical that he’d set aside for chivalric devotion, what happens to the person who puts ethics first from the get-go? You might think: ah-hah! this must be the hero of the story. But Jean Tarrou is a hero with strange quirks and blemishes, and this suggests that Camus was not satisfied with such an ethical response either.
We first encounter Tarrou as an aloof, independent eccentric from out of town. He loves the banality of pre-plague Oran, and how its people are preoccupied with down-to-earth things like business. “The only thing I’m interested in,” he says, “is acquiring peace of mind,” and Oran seems like the place to be for that, at least at first.
He closely observes the townspeople and takes special interest in one who has a habit of going out to his balcony and trying to spit on the cats who gather in the shade underneath.
When the plague first starts to spread, he’s blasé about it, but when someone suggests that this means he’s a “fatalist,” he denies it. (Paneloux had also denied being a fatalist, but corrected this less definitively and more paradoxically, saying that he was instead an “active fatalist.”)
Tarrou meets one of Dr. Rieux’s patients, a man with asthma who spends his days in bed (from choice, not from illness or handicap) marking time by moving dry peas one by one from one pan to another. Tarrou asks himself the bizarre question: “Is he [the patient] a saint?” and answers: “Yes, if saintliness is an aggregate of habits.”
Dr. Rieux tends to mention habits with some contempt. He describes the townspeople as people who from boredom devote themselves “to cultivating habits” — with simple pleasures on the weekends and business during the week. “In the evening, on leaving the office, they forgather, at an hour that never varies, in the cafés, stroll the same boulevard, or take the air on their balconies.”
But to Tarrou, habit is a delightful thing to find: he likes the habit of the man who spits on cats, and he finds the pointless repetitive task of the old asthmatic saintly. When he reflects on Paneloux’s first sermon, he says that such thought is to be expected at the beginning or end of a calamity because “habits have not yet been lost [or] are returning” — in other words, habit is associated with periods of safety and peace.
And yet he’s also troubled by the idea that habit is deadening and breaking a habit can be enlivening. When the plague comes on, he observes “the frantic desire for life that thrives in the heart of every great calamity,” and anticipates that “If the epidemic spreads… we may see again the saturnalia.” Here is an excerpt from his journals:
- How contrive not to waste one’s time?
- By being fully aware of it all the while.
- Ways in which this can be done:
- By spending one’s days on an uneasy chair in a dentist’s waiting-room; by remaining on one’s balcony all of a Sunday afternoon; by listening to lectures in a language one doesn’t know; by traveling by the longest and least-convenient train routes, and of course standing all the way; by lining up at the box-office of theaters and then not buying a seat; and so forth.
That reminded me of an earlier incarnation of myself. Before I threw myself into tax resistance, my big interest was “culture jamming” — an intentional violation of habits and expectations as a way of heightening awareness. Here’s how I described it at the time:
For me, it’s all about helping people discover the unwarranted assumptions they’re making, particularly in role-based and mediated social interactions. The assumptions are pointed out by creating a situation in which they are most pointedly invalid or absurd.
A whole lot of the evil of the last century was conducted by people who followed rather sheep-like the twisted consensus reality of their societies. What the trickster does is to find flaws in that consensus reality and to construct creative performances to exploit and uncover those flaws. If this happens enough, perhaps people will come to develop an instinctive distrust of consensus reality and will be more likely to see reality as it is.
For a while, I was advertising meetings of the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission as though it were an avant-garde play in which actors were playing the parts of a government board having a meeting. I don’t know if anyone ever sat through a meeting interpreting it as a piece of theater, but if even one person did, that would be wonderful.
So I began to feel that in Tarrou I’d found something of a kindred spirit, a feeling that increased as the book went on.
As the plague worsens, Tarrou learns that the authorities are considering conscripting people to undertake the various dangerous but necessary tasks involved in combating the spread of the disease. They’re even considering using prisoners for the job. Tarrou instead organizes a voluntary sanitary squad on his own initiative.
When Rieux asks him why he’s taking this on, Tarrou asks Rieux the same question. Rieux tries to articulate an answer, to which Tarrou is largely sympathetic, but when Rieux returns the question, Tarrou answers:
“I don’t know. My code of morals, perhaps.”
“Your code of morals? What code?”
Toward the end of the book, Tarrou is given several pages to explain himself at length, and we learn his backstory. Again he strikes notes that harmonize with my own thinking.
He explains that at an early age he learned that his father was a prosecutor of death penalty cases. His father had invited him to watch a trial at which he successfully condemned a man to death. Tarrou instinctively identified with the condemned man and eventually became unable to live under his father’s roof as a result. He left home and, the disgust at the death penalty still burning in him, joined forces with people throughout Europe fighting to undermine the existing order that justified such things.
But he came to doubt the reasons given by these revolutionaries (or propagandists of the deed or whatever they are; Tarrou is vague on this point) for their own inflictions of death. By supporting these causes, Tarrou inadvertently strengthened the same demon that occupies the executioner. “I came to understand that I… had plague through all those long years in which… I’d believed… I was fighting it… I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I’d even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way.”
His comrades disagreed, saying that the killings they carry out are justified, for the usual reasons people give. But Tarrou concluded, and says history proved him right, that this sort of thinking only ends in a “competition who will kill the most.”
As time went on I merely learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and that we can’t stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody. Yes, I’ve been ashamed ever since; I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace.
I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken… So that is why I resolved to have no truck with anything which, directly or indirectly, for good reasons or for bad, brings death to anyone or justifies others’ putting him to death.
But this, he says, requires “keep[ing] endless watch” with “a vigilance that must never falter” and can only succeed with “the fewest lapses of attention” — “tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind.” This leads to a “desperate weariness.”
“I know I have no place in the world of today,” Tarrou concludes. “Once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end.” The world of today is a competition between sides that have made murder an indispensable ingredient in their recipes, and they constantly insist that you must choose a side.
Tarrou calls these sides “plagues” and says that rather than choose between plagues, you should remember that there are plagues and also victims, and you should choose with that in mind: “I decided to take, in every predicament, the victims’ side, so as to reduce the damage done.”
Tarrou wants to learn how to be a saint. “Can one be a saint without God?” he asks. But remember the people he’s identified as candidates for sainthood earlier: the old asthmatic counting his peas over and over, and the man who spits on cats from his balcony — social isolates with mostly harmless but pointless habits who do no harm because they do very little at all.
At one point, Tarrou is talking with a scoundrel he’s befriended — Cottard — who, on the run from the law, feeling persecuted and friendless, had attempted to take his own life early in the book. But now that the plague has hit Oran, he begins to blossom: the heat is off, and besides that he no longer feels alone: now everybody is feeling hunted down. He understands people under threat and feels closer to them, though he expresses this in a haughty and grandiose way.
Having heard Cottard express these thoughts, Tarrou answers that in his opinion “the surest way of not being cut off from others was having a clean conscience.” Cottard answers: “If that is so, everyone’s always cut off from everyone else.” In his experience, sharing the experience of looming death brings people together in sympathy, but endeavoring to have our consciences clean toward one another as a precondition for sympathy is a recipe for isolation: a way to wind up hiding in your room counting peas or spitting at cats from a balcony.
Well this hit pretty close to home. I, too, became disgusted at state-sponsored murder, and opted for withdrawal over violent revolution. I am unusually cautious of inadvertently approving of violence by endorsing plans that have murder indelibly dyed into their fabric. And I fret over the remaining ways in which my life is inevitably entwined with violence and other harms, I despair of ever regaining innocence, and I fantasize of ways to approach secular sainthood. I also feel pretty alone in all of this and sometimes find it hard to relate to other people, and even sometimes isolate myself from close relationships because I obsess overmuch on my sins, flaws, and foibles.
Dr. Rieux is a character who runs parallel to Tarrou throughout the book: they share much of the same outlook on what takes place, they are interested in each other and confide in each other, they work closely together and become close friends. But the subtle differences between them suggest ways of overcoming some of the snags Tarrou encounters.
Rieux is a tougher nut for me to crack than the other characters. He narrates the book, which means that there’s more material about his outlook and experiences to draw on, which is both a blessing and a curse. He also hides his role as narrator until the end of the book, a weird decision that makes me somewhat distrustful of what he says. He strikes me as a very good character — if anyone can be said to be the hero of The Plague, it’s him — but most of the story comes from his point of view, and he has a way of dropping things into the narration that reflect well on him, so we have to keep that in mind.
Rieux is a medical doctor, and when the plague comes he begins treating patients and advising on public health strategy without missing a beat. This is his role, his purpose, what he’s prepared for, and he steps right into it without question (though he later allows himself some internal doubts).
He sees himself as a world-weary man of common decency and integrity: “a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in — though he had much liking for his fellow men — and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.”
His response to the plague is methodical. “The thing,” he says, “was to do your job as it should be done.” When the ceaseless grind of dealing with dying people over and over erodes his pity so that he performs emotionlessly — with a “bleak indifference” — he welcomes this as it makes his job easier and more efficient.
As narrator, Rieux reflects on the progress of the plague and on how this affects the people of the town, and a handful of specific people in particular. In one of the more perplexing passages, he compares the divergent choices that he and Rambert have made by saying that Rambert chose “happiness” while he chose “abstraction.” Abstraction? It’s really difficult to know what he means by using that word.
Rambert introduced the term: angrily accusing Rieux of stubbornly sticking to dogmatic principles when Rieux refuses to give Rambert a certificate declaring him plague-free so that he can get out of the city (on the grounds that nobody can guarantee that any of them is plague-free): “You live in a world of abstractions,” Rambert says. But when Rieux turns that term over in his mind, this is what he comes up with:
Could that term “abstraction” really apply to these days he spent in his hospital while the plague was battering the town, raising its death-toll to five hundred victims a week? Yes, an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities. Still when abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.
Once the epidemic was diagnosed, the patient had to be evacuated forthwith. Then indeed began “abstraction” and a tussle with the family.… Then came a second phase of conflict, tears and pleadings — abstraction, in a word.…
every evening mothers [of new plague victims] wailed… with a distraught abstraction… Rieux had nothing to look forward to but a long sequence of such scenes, renewed again and again. Yes, plague, like abstraction, was monotonous…
To fight abstraction you must have something of it in your own make-up. But how could Rambert be expected to grasp that? Abstraction for him was all that stood in the way of his happiness. Indeed, Rieux had to admit that the journalist was right, in one sense. But he knew, too, that abstraction sometimes proves itself stronger than happiness; and then, if only then, it has to be taken into account.
So the plague itself is kind of an abstraction because it takes people away from the reality they had grown used to and thrusts them into this alternate plague-reality. It also causes people to distance themselves emotionally and by denial from that new unpleasant reality, another sort of abstraction. Its victims are abstracted from their families and ultimately from the world itself. The mourners become preoccupied — “abstracted” — by their personal grief, and abstract themselves first through bargaining and denial and then by surrendering themselves to overwhelming emotion. Abstraction is also monotonous, potentially strong, and may have murderous intentions.
It’s tough to put all of these puzzle pieces together. Maybe if I knew French better that would help; from the way Camus uses the word “abstraction” it sounds like it shares some overlapping definitions with our “extraction” and “distraction” for instance (though French has those words as well).
At first I thought that Rieux was just being ironic. After all, it is Rambert who is trying to “abstract” himself from town, and trying to insist the plague isn’t his problem but their problem. Meanwhile Rieux is in the trenches. He might be straining the word “abstraction” to the breaking point just to show how inadequate it is as a criticism of his behavior.
But the way he contrasts abstraction and happiness, and often finds himself ambivalent choosing between the two, made me consider another interpretation: happiness requires a sort of egocentric, unquestioning immersion in life — almost like Paneloux’s leap of faith, but in the opposite direction. On the other hand, abstraction is the process of stepping back from life and trying to look at it objectively and see it from other viewpoints. The plague is a kind of abstraction because it forces people to abandon the perspectives from which happiness is available to them in order that they can cope with the crisis, which must be met objectively — this is part of what makes the plague terrible and part of how it torments its victims. Rieux is ambivalent about Rambert’s choice because he can’t decide if Rambert is being irresponsible by not confronting the abstraction of the plague head-on on its own turf or whether Rambert is refusing to be victimized by the plague in this way and so deserves Rieux’s help as an innocent who is under threat. In another context, Rieux (as the narrator) says: “to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.” Rieux refuses to condemn Rambert’s choice and even gives him help in his plans to escape.
Rieux as Healer
Tarrou at one point asks Rieux: “Why do you yourself show such devotion [to your task], considering you don’t believe in God?” Rieux answers:
…that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God [this is before the second sermon]. And this was proved by the fact that no one ever threw himself on Providence completely. Anyhow, in this respect Rieux believed himself to be on the right road — in fighting against creation as he found it.
Yes, you’re thinking it calls for pride to feel that way. But I assure you I’ve no more than the pride that’s needed to keep me going. I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps, they’ll think things over; and so shall I. But what’s wanted now is to make them well. I defend them as best I can, that’s all.
When I entered this profession, I did it “abstractedly,” so to speak; because I had a desire for it, because it meant a career like another, one that young men often aspire to. Perhaps, too, because it was particularly difficult for a workman’s son, like myself. And then I had to see people die. Do you know that there are some who refuse to die? Have you ever heard a woman scream “Never!” with her last gasp? Well, I have. And then I saw that I could never get hardened to it. I was young then, and I was outraged by the whole scheme of things, or so I thought. Subsequently I grew more modest. Only, I’ve never managed to get used to seeing people die. That’s all I know. Yet after all… since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?”
Tarrou says that the doctor is doomed never to win his battle. Rieux agrees: “A never ending defeat” he calls it, but says “it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”
“Who taught you all this, Doctor?”
The reply came promptly:
Compare this to Tarrou’s one-word answer when he’s first called on to explain why he is also devoting himself to fighting the plague: “Comprehension.” But toward the end of the book, when Rieux asks him what he thinks the way to peace is, Tarrou replies that he thinks it’s “the path of sympathy,” which suggests that maybe he’s been studying, admiring, and learning from Rieux all along.
Heroism and Ignorance
But to turn this simple intellectual/emotional dichotomy on its head, Rieux goes on a strange digression in which he puts forward a kind of Platonic argument that evil is a form of ignorance:
The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is that that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.
Those, like himself, Tarrou, and others, who risk their lives to fight the plague, Rieux thinks, are not being heroic, but are just seeing things as they are and making a cold objective calculation of what needs to be done.
If there was a hero to be found during the plague, Rieux thinks, it was probably Monsieur Grand.
At the beginning of the novel, Rieux (as narrator) describes Grand as “tall and drooping, with narrow shoulders, thin limbs, and a yellowish mustache” as well as “big, protruding ears” and a weak constitution, “lost in the garments that he always chose a size too large, under the illusion that they would wear longer,” with none of his upper teeth left so that when he smiled “his mouth looked like a small black hole into his face.”
He “seemed always to have trouble in finding his words,” which is a funny observation because it later turns out that this meek clerk has been trying to write a great novel in his spare time, but because of his perfectionist aspirations (and the fact that he doesn’t have much of a way with words in the first place), he’s never gotten past rewriting and rewriting the first sentence trying to get it right.
“[I]n short, he had all the attributes of insignificance.”
But although a meek, mousy, hesitant, somewhat comic figure, he has a wholehearted, unquestioning acceptance of “common decency” that Rieux admires.
From this angle, the narrator [Rieux] holds that, more than Rieux or Tarrou, Grand was the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups. He had said yes without a moment’s hesitation and with the large-heartedness that was a second nature with him. All he had asked was to be allotted light duties: he was too old for anything else. He could give his time from six to eight every evening [after his clerk’s job]. When Rieux thanked him with some warmth, he seemed surprised. “Why, that’s not difficult! Plague is here and we’ve got to make a stand, that’s obvious. Ah, I only wish everything were as simple!”
Yes, if it is a fact that people like to have examples given them, men of the type they call heroic, and if it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a “hero,” the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.
During the plague period, Rieux and Tarrou behave and express themselves in very similar ways: it can be difficult to distinguish their outlooks and the motivations behind the choices they make. But a big difference is that Tarrou sees his actions as part of a long-term project of attempted saintliness, which he seems to imagine will conclude in a withdrawal from the world’s morally-ambiguous decisions into a life of harmless triviality. Tarrou doesn’t think the world offers a “normal” to return to. To him, the plague, metaphorically, will always be with us. Rieux on the other hand sees the plague as an interruption, and has no aspirations for sainthood: he just wants to go back to being a man who lives more or less as other men do and gets pleasure out of life.
When Rieux and Tarrou discuss this, Tarrou concludes: “Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.” Rieux at first thinks he’s being sarcastic, since being a saint is a more ambitious goal than being ordinary, but he sees that Tarrou is in earnest. I think Tarrou must have meant that Rieux, with his desire to return to a plague-free normality, is the ambitious one.
This helps explain what Rieux sees in Grand: a kindred spirit, who also wants to fight this finite plague to the finish so he can get back to living his life and pursuing his happiness (getting that opening sentence just right).
There’s so much more going on in this book besides, so may other threads to pull and speculations to follow. Camus said that people today “have had to forge for themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.” The Plague makes for a wonderful focus of meditation to help us in this task, and, should you discover that you are living in a time of pestilence, you will probably be glad if you have spent some time wrestling with it.