Albert Camus’ novel depicts the city of Oran, Algeria during a contemporary outbreak of the plague. While there are obvious parallels between the plague in the novel and the peste brune (the brown plague, a nickname for the Nazis who occupied France during World War 2), by transforming the threat into an act of nature, Camus shifts the focus from human cruelty to the many reactions to suffering: some pretend it doesn’t exist, some try to escape it, others accept it and try to alleviate pain. What’s more, the plague brings people from very different backgrounds together in the common cause of resistance against the disease—even though it costs many of them their lives.
While The Plague attempts to articulate universal truths about humanity’s reactions to suffering (whether caused by human aggression, by poor governance, or by nature), the novel does resonate with our current moment in specific ways. I have translated a number of quotes from the novel that struck me as I reread it this spring after face to face instruction was suspended because of COVID-19.
“The world’s evil almost always comes from ignorance, and unenlightened goodwill can do as much harm as malice.”
“”They say cold weather stops these sorts of diseases.'”
“There always comes a time when the person who dares say that two plus two is four is condemned to die.”
“‘Your victories are always temporary.’ ‘That’s no reason to stop fighting.'”
“Mint lozenges disappeared from pharmacies because people thought they would prevent the contagion.”
“Some continued their lives and adapted to confinement, while others turned all their attention to getting out of this prison.”
“Most were annoyed that the disease interrupted their way of life or hurt their interests.”
“The only way to fight the plague is by being honest.”
“Of course, one could always endeavor not to see it, cover one’s eyes and refuse to acknowledge it, but evidence has a terrible way of forcing itself into view.”
“In the midst of a pandemic, we learn that there is more to admire than to despise in humanity.”
“The bacteria that causes the plague never dies and never entirely disappears.”
“The only things to be gained from the games of the plague and of life were knowledge and memories.”