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Albert Camus: La Peste (The Plague)

Camus’ second novel is more conventional than his first and tells a fairly straightforward account of a plague in Oran, in Algeria. Many commentators have seen the image of the plague as a symbol for the German occupation of France and other countries, from the gradual appearance of the rats to the final elimination of the plague, though with a final warning that the plague bacillus can remain dormant for many years and then re-emerge, as, of course, violence did in Algeria. The story is told by Dr. Rieux, who is determined to fight the plague by medical means. He and his colleagues soon realise that the city has been affected by the plague but have a hard time convincing the authorities of this. Finally, the authorities cannot ignore the evidence not only of dead rats but of an increasing number of people dying, and they quarantine the city.

Camus gives us a detailed portrait of the reaction of the various inhabitants of the city, from the priest who is convinced that the plague is God’s judgement on the sinners of Oran (though, interestingly enough, we see hardly any Arabs, though the real-life Oran is and was then a very Arab city) to the man who tries to escape illegally to rejoin his wife to the man who makes money by smuggling. Eventually it is, of course, medical science rather than divine intervention that saves the city and the inhabitants soon return to their old ways.

More than an allegory about the German occupation, the book is also about responsibility and how people behave in a crisis. Rieux, the narrator, whose identity is not revealed till the end, while no saint, is clearly Camus’ ideal, as he accepts both his responsibility as a doctor but also accepts the situation he is faced with. He does not try to escape to join his wife (who later dies) nor, in particular, does he turn to God either to blame or for help. As a Camusian hero he knows full well that humans are faced with often inexplicable situations and have to face them, even though their efforts may be futile in the long run.

Publishing history

First published 1947 by Gallimard
First published in English 1948 by Knopf