The Plague

By David Grima | Mar 24, 2020

Two books come to mind as we all start to dig in for the duration of this dreaded virus. This first might at least be mildly diverting.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” describes the way a group of wealthy people entertained themselves by telling stories to each other while residing in self-imposed exile (we’d call it quarantine today) at a grand home outside Florence, during the Black Death which swept the old city in around 1348. He wrote his book shortly afterwards.

A well-known online source describes the stories as various tales of love ranging from the erotic to the tragic. “Tales of wit, practical jokes, and life lessons contribute to the mosaic.”

The second book is Albert Camus’ 1957 novel “La Peste” which translates as “The Plague."

Camus was a Frenchman born and raised in the colony of Algeria. “The Plague” tells the story of a mass disease spread by fleas on rats that causes the citizens of Oran on the North African shore of the Mediterranean to seal themselves off from the outside world.

By cutting themselves off from all contact they intend to prevent the disease spreading everywhere, but of course the self-imposed quarantine causes enormous suffering to the population of the city as the plague runs its course.

Some people see the story as a metaphor for the German occupation of France, which is quite a plausible idea. The real purpose of the plague in the writer’s mind, I believe, is to demonstrate the wide range of human response to a shared calamity. And as the story develops, certain characters begin to behave in certain ways that reveal the true nature of their character.

Their responses also serve to offer ideas of possible human reaction to calamity. As I suggested last week, choose the character you most identify with, and see how you might fit in.

The following sketches are not my own, but are lightly adapted from the great on-line public resource, whose many contributors and editors I salute for their labors. However I do have some personal credentials in this matter, having read the book both in French and in English, and will stand by the following descriptions.

Dr. Bernard Rieux is about 35. At the beginning of the novel, his wife, who has been ill for a year, leaves for a sanatorium. It is Rieux who treats the first victim of plague and first uses the word plague to describe the disease. He urges the authorities to take action to stop the spread of the epidemic.

However, at first, along with everyone else, the danger the town faces seems unreal to him. He feels uneasy but does not realize the gravity of the situation. Within a short while, he grasps what is at stake and warns the authorities that unless steps are taken immediately, the epidemic could kill off half the town's population of 200,000 within a couple of months.

During the epidemic, Rieux heads an auxiliary hospital and works long hours treating the victims, but there is little he can do, and his duties weigh heavily upon him. He never gets home until late, and he has to distance himself from the natural pity that he feels for the victims; otherwise, he would not be able to go on.

It is especially hard for him when he visits a victim in the person's home because he knows that he must immediately call for an ambulance and have the person removed from the house. Often, the relatives plead with him not to do so since they know they may never see the person again.

Rieux works to combat the plague simply because he is a doctor and his job is to relieve human suffering. He does not do it for any grand, religious purpose, or as part of a high-minded moral code. He is a practical man, doing what needs to be done without any fuss, but he knows that the struggle against death is something that he can never win.

Jean Tarrou arrived in Oran some weeks before the plague broke out for unknown reasons. He is not there on business since he appears to have private means. Tarrou is a good-natured man who smiles a lot.

Before the plague came, he liked to associate with the Spanish dancers and musicians in the city. He also keeps a diary, full of his observations of life in Oran, which Rieux incorporates into the narrative. It is Tarrou who first comes up with the idea of organizing teams of volunteers to fight the plague.

He wants to do so before the authorities begin to conscript people, and he does not like the official plan to get prisoners to do the work. He takes action, prompted by his own code of morals; he feels that the plague is everybody's responsibility and that everyone should do his or her duty. What interests him, he tells Rieux, is how to become a saint even though he does not believe in God.

When the plague epidemic is virtually over, Tarrou becomes one of its last victims but puts up a heroic struggle before dying.

Raymond Rambert is a journalist visiting Oran to research a story on living conditions in the Arab quarter of the town. When the plague strikes, he finds himself trapped in a city with which he feels he has no connection.

He misses his wife who is in Paris and uses all his ingenuity and resourcefulness to persuade the city bureaucracy to allow him to leave. When that fails, he contacts smugglers, who agree to help him escape for a fee of 10,000 francs.

However, there is a hitch in the arrangements, and by the time another escape plan is arranged, Rambert has changed his mind. He decides to stay in the city and continue to help fight the plague, saying that he would feel ashamed of himself if he pursued a merely private happiness. He now feels that he belongs in Oran, and that the plague is everyone's business, including his.

Joseph Grand is a 50-year-old clerk for the city government. He is tall and thin. Poorly paid, he lives an austere life, but he is capable of deep affection. In his spare time, Grand polishes up his Latin, and he is also writing a book, but he is such a perfectionist that he continually rewrites the first sentence and can get no further.

Grand tells Rieux that he married while still in his teens, but overwork and poverty took their toll. Grand did not receive the career advancement that he had been promised, and his wife Jeanne left him. He tried but failed to write a letter to her, and he still grieves for his loss.

When the plague takes a grip on the town, Grand joins the team of volunteers, acting as general secretary, recording all the statistics. Rieux regards him as "the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups."

Grand catches the plague himself and asks Rieux to burn his manuscript, but then makes an unexpected recovery. At the end of the novel, Grand says he is much happier; he has written to Jeanne and made a fresh start on his book.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand. He does not appear to have a job and is described as having private means although he describes himself as "a traveling salesman in wines and spirits." Cottard is an eccentric figure, silent and secretive, who tries to hang himself in his room. Afterwards, he does not want to be interviewed by the police since he has committed a crime by attempting suicide and fears arrest.

Cottard's personality changes after the outbreak of plague. Whereas he was aloof and mistrustful before, he now becomes agreeable and tries hard to make friends. He appears to relish the coming of the plague, and Tarrou thinks it is because he finds it easier to live with his own fears now that everyone else is in a state of fear, too. Cottard takes advantage of the crisis to make money by selling contraband cigarettes and inferior liquor.

As the epidemic wanes, Cottard's mood fluctuates. Sometimes he is sociable, but at other times, he shuts himself up in his room. Eventually, he loses his mental balance and shoots at random at people on the street, wounding some and killing a dog. The police arrest him.

Father Paneloux is a learned, well-respected Jesuit priest. He is well known for having given a series of lectures in which he championed a pure form of Christian doctrine and chastised his audience about their laxity.

During the first stage of the plague outbreak, Paneloux preaches a sermon at the cathedral. He has a powerful way of speaking, and he insists to the congregation that the plague is a scourge sent by God to those who have hardened their hearts against him. However, he also claims that God is present to offer succor and hope.

Later, Paneloux attends at the bedside of Othon's stricken son and prays that the boy may be spared. After the boy's death, Paneloux tells Rieux that although the death of an innocent child in a world ruled by a loving God cannot be rationally explained, it should nonetheless be accepted.

Paneloux joins the team of volunteer workers and preaches another sermon saying that the death of the innocent child is a test of faith. Since God willed the child's death, so the Christian should will it, too. A few days after preaching this sermon, Paneloux is taken ill. He refuses to call for a doctor, trusting in God alone, and dies. Since his symptoms did not seem to resemble those of the plague, Rieux records his death as a doubtful case.

* * * * *

It is not strictly a cheerful novel, but I do remember feeling increasingly attached to certain characters as they respond to the public health crisis according to their various personalities.

It will be interesting to think of our “fellow citizens”, as the novelists calls the people of Oran, but I mean how those here in Rockland will respond to our own awful situation.

David Grima is a former editor with Courier Publications. He can be reached at davidgrima@ymail.com.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Dennis Corkum | Mar 24, 2020 20:17

Richard, I have read enough of your posts to know you are smart enough not to support that statement.  Assume it is just to make a point.

 



Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Mar 24, 2020 10:45

"Our people want to return to work. They will practice Social Distancing and all else, and Seniors will be watched over protectively & lovingly. We can do two things together. THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM! Congress MUST ACT NOW. We will come back strong!"  10:16   3/25/2020  President Trump



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