Based on the evidence in his notebooks, Camus assiduously studied the literature of plague, from Thucydides to Boccaccio to Artaud and certainly the Bible. But always for this author, the plague is foremost a scientific fact, a sickness spread by rats and fleas that infects humans both good and bad indiscriminately. Like the white whale in Moby-Dick, a favorite novel of Camus’s, the plague is lethal but it has no rationale. It is a force as opaque as it is deadly.
Camus is not interested in explaining bubonic plague. He only cares about exploring its effect on a population and most particularly on their responses.
He concentrates on a handful of characters that includes a doctor, a bureaucrat, a criminal, a priest, and a journalist. Each of these men views the plague differently. The crook, for instance, welcomes the quarantine that comes with the epidemic because he thinks it will hide him from the authorities. The priest at first sees God’s agency behind the disease, a view that changes as the novel progresses. But by far the most complicated character, and the man through whose eyes we see most of the action, is Dr. Rieux, a man of science and healing who does all he can to save lives and hold death at bay but yet a man who emerges at the end with his humanity badly damaged.
“As [Rieux] watches the exuberant crowd on the night when [the quarantine is lifted after a year of confinement and] the gates of Oran finally open, he realizes that he will always be a prisoner of the plague,” writes Germaine Bree in her brilliant critical biography Camus. “For him the plague is, in essence, the clear inner awareness of man’s accidental and transitory presence on the earth, an awareness that is the source of all metaphysical torment, a torment which in Camus’s eyes is one of the characteristics of our time.”