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“Plague” Literature Review (2810 words)

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    Albert Camus was a French writer who was known around the globe for his many different works, however he is especially known for his thoughts on “absurdism”. Camus believed that something that was absurd wasn’t possible by people or logically. It was beyond ridiculous and therefor impossible. This was the idea of his most famous book, The Plague. The Plague is a novel that explores aspects of attribute and condition, destiny, God, and fate. The novel is about the Plague illness that takes place in a city in Oran, Algeria Dr. Bernard Rieux is the protagonist but also is the narrator, although that is not known until the end of the novel. Camus wants to book to be written in a way for the audience to form their own opinions of the characters without having the bias from the narrator. The people of Oran do not believe the plague will ever reach them and believe they are special in some way and think it will never hurt them. However that theory is proved wrong as as soon as people get sick everyone cannot understand why the plague has hit their city. Dr Rieux, is one of the main characters and one of the people early on that decide to do something about the plague striking Oran. Dr Rieux, saw early symptoms of the plagues because he is a doctor however did not know what it was right away.

    No one believed that there was a plague in their city and could not recognize that they were all in grave danger. As days go by and the death toll increases dramatically, the citizens definitely realize the gravity of the situation. Dr. Rieux feels like it is his responsibility to help everyone and try his best to end the plague. He works long hours in the hospital and everyday he goes back to his house late with a high death toll and a very low survival rate. Dr. Rieux understands that every day is a losing battle for him. ‘Yes. However, your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’ ‘Yes, I do know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle…Yes. A never-ending defeat’ (Camus, 128). This conversation between Tarrou and Dr. Rieux is one where Rieux ultimately realizes what his life has turned into since the plague. Being the primary doctor that is trying to fight the plague is so difficult because he will never have a day filled with victories, or when no one dies. This thought that he will never win is very dramatic and eye-opening. It makes Rieux believe in something. He believes that he is fighting the plague and helping people survive, and he isn’t going to stop until the plague ends. One of the turning points in the novel is when the priest, Paneloux, delivers a sermon about the Plague. He tells the people of Oran that the ones that have sinned will die from the Plague, and the ones that have not sinned will be free from the Plague. However, he makes the point that if one just went to church and prayed once a week, then they would not be saved. ‘The just man need haven’t any fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble. For Plague is that the flail of God and therefore the world His threshing-floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff…You fondly imagined it had been enough to go to God on Sundays, and thus you’ll make freed from your weekdays. You believed some brief formalities, some bendings of the knee, would recompense Him tolerably for your criminal indifference. But God is not mocked’ (Camus 95, 97). These quotes from the sermon are instrumental to how people think about the Plague. Many people listening to the sermon believe Paneloux and want to be good and not sin. However, some people ignore him and don’t understand why God would still punish them this harshly. Dr. Rieux has the biggest problem with the sermon though out of anyone. He doesn’t believe in God and wants the people to become proactive in stopping this Plague. Instead, most everyone is thinking now that if they have sinned then they will die and aren’t going to do anything about it. The people that haven’t sinned believe that they will be fine and there is no need to worry or change anything about their lives. This goes against everything that Dr. Rieux is working for. He wants everyone to realize that even if one has sinned then they can fight it and help stop the Plague from spreading everywhere.

    The reader is definitely inside Dr. Rieux’s head the most out of all the characters in the novel. This happens because he is the protagonist but also because he turns out to be the narrator at the end. Being a doctor, there are many biased views towards the Plague that would sway the reader one way or another based on their own opinions. If Camus had come out in the beginning saying that Rieux was the narrator, then the reader would automatically disagree or agree with everything that he did during the novel. Instead, Camus purposefully told his audience at the end because he didn’t want this to happen. He wanted the reader to see the perspective from many different characters and be involved with every one of them. The two most prominent opposing views were Dr. Rieux and Paneloux. We were given high points on why to believe one or the other and it was up to you at the time to decide whether or not you would approach the Plague on Rieux’s side or Paneloux’s. If it was known that Rieux was the narrator from the beginning, then Rieux would have been much more direct with his opinions and one would have probably read about Rieux hating Paneloux. It is the precise same with Paneloux and if he was the narrator. The novel would are all about God and the way to wish for help.

    Dr. Rieux is that the most influential character within the Plague because he was is one of the few characters that can distance himself from the devastating events of the plague by not allowing his feelings overtake him and stop writing the book.

    The Plague by Albert Cmaus is an influential existentialist novel that describes the impact of a plague has on a small community. Set in the fictional city of Oran, Algeria in the Camus draws on a large cast of character to portray and embody the historical impact that the plague on both the populace and society. Bernard Rieux is the protagonist but also is the narrator, although that is not known until the end of the novel. Camus wants to book to be written in a way for the audience to form their own opinions of the characters without having the bias from the narrator. In a way Doctor Rieux, demonstrates the impact of the plague on religion, social structures, and community morals.

    The people of Oran do not believe the plague will ever reach them and believe they are special in some way and think it will never hurt them. However, that theory is proved wrong as soon as people get sick everyone cannot understand why the plague has hit their city. Dr Rieux, is one of the main characters and one of the people early on that decide to do something about the plague striking Oran. Dr Rieux, saw early symptoms of the plagues because he is a doctor however did not know what it was right away. While the plague affects him on a very personal level, seperating him from his sick wife and killing his friend Jean Tarrou, his work also shows him its impact on all levels of society. At the end of his experience, he vows “bear witness to those plague-stricken people” by being the “chronicler of the troubled and rebellious hearts of [the] townspeople under the impact of the plague”. He also wants to “[record] what had had to be done” to combat the plague, including his discovery that there exists both the pneumonic and bubonic types of plague in Oran. In many ways, he resembles the medieval physician and plague chronicler Guy de Chauliac, who, unlike his peers who avoided patients who contracted the plague, expended considerable effort to look after them. Through his experience, he became the first physician to recognize the two different types of plague: pneumonic and bubonic, which he recorded in his influential medical text, the Chirurgia Magna. Both historically and in the context of the novel, plague chroniclers like Rieux plays a significant role in our understanding not just of the plague itself, and but also of its influence on society.

    The dramatic change of the role of religion in society is embodied by the shifts in the view of the character Father Paneloux, a well-respected Jesuit priest. Paneloux is the central authority of religion in the city, someone whom the population turns to for guidance during the initial and uncertain stages of the plague. A “stalwart champion of Christian doctrine at its most precise and purest,” he claims that the “plague is the flail of God” to those who have “harden their hearts against him,” a lesson that was “learned by Cain, […] by Job and Pharaoh”. His adherence to scripture does little to comfort the panicking population, however, merely increased the tension in the city and, as Rieux records, the numbers of “lunatics at large” who wander the streets “laughing soundlessly [with] faced convulsed” believing that “they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment.” In the time of crisis, Paneloux and his religion fails to connect and resound with the people, and instead offer them condemnation. Slowly, the church in Oran loses its power: by winter, Rieux notes that the people have “replaced normal religious practices by more or less extravagant superstitions,” such as by wearing “prophylactic medals of St. Roch”. Historically, we see a similar relation between the people and religion in the face of the plague. As the church clerics perished in the plague and others left for their rural retreats, the church teachings of condemnation began to lose its appeal. Many turned to worship plague saints who were seen as figures who “knows suffering and [have] the power to offer help to those stricken,”; reflecting this was a significant increase in the adaption of holy and saint names for newborns during this time. There was also a rise of religious fervor in the form of cults: believing, like the madman described by Rieux, that “the man had incurred God’s wrath,” the Flagellants proceeds through the streets of Europe, whipping themselves to “atone for human sin”. Religion cannot remain unchanged in the face of such turmoil, as embodied Father Paneloux’s internal struggles and questioning of his previous beliefs. After witnessing the agonizing death of a young child, of how God punishes innocents and sinners indiscriminately, he proclaims that “the love of God is a hard love”, and that he himself is “groping [his] way through the darkness”. The plague shakes and destroys the foundations of religion in society, from simple townsfolk to the central religious authorities, prompting new belief systems and forcing changes to existing ones.

    In addition to changes in religion, the plague also prompts excellent changes in the morals of the community. Rieux records that as the daily deaths increase and the sense of panic in the city rose, a mood of “reckless extravagance” set onto the population: they “spend very freely” on “choice wines [and] the costliest extras”, and “drug themselves with talking, arguing or love-making”. People became idle and wander the streets aimlessly as “[most] shops and a many good offices were closed”. Rieux reflects that once the townspeople “realized their instant peril” to the fatal disease, traditional morals based on religion can no longer hold their ground. As a result, people “gave [all] their thoughts to pleasure”. Medieval plague chroniclers note a similar trend: that laborers often “simply refused to perform” in face of the horrors of the plague, “preferring to indulge their appetites while they still had the chance”. Traditional family ties were also broken as many came to believe that flight from the cities was the only option; as contemporary writer Giovanni Boccaccio notes in The Decameron, that suddenly, a “large numbers of men and women” started to “abandoned their homes, their relatives […] and headed for the countryside”. This desperate desire for flight is embodied by Rambert, who tirelessly explored every glimmer of possibility in order to leave the city and be reunited with his wife in Paris, flocks from one government office to another and eventually to the smuggling ring headed by Cottard. He thinks of only his own escape, and not of the implications that the plague has on his new friends in Oran. Rieux notes the importance of flight to Rambert, and the great toll the rejections from the authorities has on him: how he “drifts aimlessly from café to café” every day, looking “pathetically lost”. In the face of widespread panic and the collapse of religious authority, social morals must lose its ground as well.

    With traditional sources of authorities and a sense of community gone, perhaps it is inevitable that social structures also shift. In Oran, we see a great increase in the power of the military, who are allowed to shoot to kill anyone who attempts to escape the city. The volunteer-run sanitary squads were also given great powers, including the power to (forcefully) evacuating those who are sick and treating those who are hospitalized despite their lack of credentials. The doctors were meanwhile given the permission to test out new medicine and serums on patients without consent, an experiment that ended disastrously wrong. This process empowered those who were previously powerless, including Tarrou, previously a disillusioned ex-soldier on vacation in Oran who now oversees the operation of the entire sanitary squad. Believing in his own code of ethics: to follow “the path of sympathy” instead of relying on religious authority, he was able to form his own decisions and rational action in the face of chaos and panic. Cottard, who was previously poor and marginalized in society, only to be noticed by his neighbour when he attempted to commit suicide, is similarly empowered with the coming of the plague. By leading “smuggling ventures” of “rationed goods, […] contraband cigarettes and inferior liquor at steadily rising prices”, he is able to “[build] up a small fortune”. Previously quiet, depressed, and secretive, he is now “beaming with satisfaction” and looking healthy and lively. While Oran was able to maintain most of its administrative and economic life (despite a large number of people “on holiday”), Medieval societies were not spared so lightly. The high mortality rate of the plague meant that as “workers either died or fled their posts, or simply refused to perform”, the economy collapsed as “posts in society [were left] unfilled and services unperformed”. Meanwhile, Boccaccio records that the number of the physician had “increased enormously because the ranks of the qualified were invaded by people […] who had never received any training in medicine”. Such collapse of the workforce seriously “undermined the feudal order,” causing widespread famine, peasant revolts, and eventually lead to the emergence of a free peasantry as “labor shortages made it impossible to keep peasants bound to the soil”. In Oran, the chaos of the plague allowed the marginalized to become prominent, while in Medieval Europe, the collapse of the feudal system eventually leads to new rights for the oppressed majority; social structures cannot stay unchanged as the world changes around them.

    At the end of the book, Doctor Rieux concludes that he believes “there are more things to admire in men than to despise”, seeing how his community survives, transformed, and becomes more united because of the plague. As members of today’s world, perhaps we should also admire the medieval men and women who pulled though the numerous and recurring onslaughts of the plague. Far from being destroyed, medieval religion, social structure, and thinking was fundamentally transformed during this time to forms more recognizable and remain relevant today; for example, the beginnings of capitalism, more diverse and inclusive forms of religion, and the enlightenment of scientific knowledge. Like the people of Oran, they changed and adapted to these new systems, and slowly rebuilt their society. As deadly and morbid as the plague was to the people, one can perhaps argue that it has made Europe change for the better. However, no matter what the change is, one can always expect there to be chroniclers like Rieux and de Chauliac to be there to record its unfolding, and its profound impact on society.

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