French author Albert Camus published The Plague in 1947, but it’s relevant today. The novel tells a fictional account of an Algerian town overtaken by a ruthless and deadly plague in the 1940s and the people who experience it. In 2020, life is imitating art.
When Albert Camus wrote The Plague in the 1940s, he told it as an analogy of World War II. In his novel, just like the world shockingly returned to war after the First World War, bubonic plague returned to the port town of Oran, a French settlement on the Algerian coast. However, today’s readers might be feel the book was published in current times and speaks to the year 2020. From healers to grifters, conflicting governmental leaders to health experts, Camus’s brutal look at humanity is worth a reread during the coronavirus outbreak.
Dr. James Heffernan, Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth College, outlined the basic plot of The Plague for better understanding of its relevance. He explained that in the novel nobody can believe the bubonic plague has struck Oran. He says the reasoning is that we consider it to be a medieval illness and that the government’s initial reaction is to understate the danger of the plague, even refusing to use the word “plague” for some time despite overwhelming evidence. Once a city-wide quarantine is enacted, experts suggest exercising caution, but the residents of Oran ignore them, hastening the spread of disease.
One would be hard-pressed to find a novel with a more similar setup to the novel coronavirus scare sweeping the planet today. Especially considering, Oran’s hesitant government seems to mirror-image what is happening this year as many nations worldwide are struggling with the same issues.
“The obvious inference is to say that initially they’re very close—the impulse to minimize the severity of the risk and the reluctance to call it by the name it deserves; they just can’t bear to do that,” Dr. Heffernan said. “But a big difference, it seems to me, is that internationally, governments are indeed working together to combat [the coronavirus]. We were very slow to pick up the tests that were offered us by the World Health Organization; we declined to use those because we wanted to use our own, and I think it was a big mistake.
“I think worldwide now and in this country at last, belatedly, they’re taking major steps; one of the things the authorities in the novel don’t do is close theaters and restaurants and we’re taking that step.”
One of the continuing themes throughout Camus’s book is how isolated Oran’s 200,000 residents feel from the rest of the world. Walled within their city, they are even refused the right to send letters to loved ones, lest germs escape the quarantine on licked envelopes. Fortunately, this is one area in which the book doesn’t reflect our modern world.
“I think that aspect of the novel, that sense of actually being cut off, is exemplified; I don’t think there’s any of that right now,” Dr. Heffernan said. “It makes such a huge difference; we have not just telephone, but internet and e-mail and everything else. Most people have access to cell phones or email, computers, something like that for personal communication. We have the channels of communication which remain wide open.”
He added that although the information about the coronavirus disease COVID-19 is getting out “somewhat belatedly” in the United States, it’s being transmitted internationally, which helps us to understand the scope of the crisis and to share information locally with one another.
Additionally, characters in The Plague are desperate to get out. Dr. Heffernan cited one character, a traveling journalist named Raymond Rambert, who is desperate to leave and get back to the woman he loves, who is in Paris. Rambert and other characters scheme to break quarantine and escape the city to see their loved ones. So far, the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t caused government authorities to restrict our public movement.
“Of course we’re restless,” Dr. Heffernan said. “But again, I don’t think that it’s of a degree the people in the novel experience, because we haven’t yet been forbidden to travel and people haven’t been forbidden to get into cars and just go for a drive in the country.”
We’re in This Together
Coming together as unified citizens is one thing that Dr. Heffernan hopes we can learn from the book. He mentioned a line in the book that summarizes much of what Camus tries to convey throughout the story: “All who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”
“We may learn the value of that way of thinking,” Dr. Heffernan said. “This is a war—this is not something we can defeat by military means; there’s no way to bomb it out of existence. You have to test and you have to care for people, and we have to focus on healing as much as we can and taking precautions obviously—hand sanitizing, distancing, and all the rest of it.
“I think there’s a lesson to be learned there, that mindset of healing others and healing ourselves and guarding against disease. It’s our relationship to each other. People realize that they’re all in it together.”
Dr. James A. W. Heffernan contributed to this article. Dr. Heffernan is Professor of English, Emeritus at Dartmouth College, where he was also Frederick Sessions Beebe ’35 Professor in the Art of Writing. He earned his A.B. cum laude from Georgetown University and his Ph.D. in English from Princeton University.