Camus’ The Plague in COVID-19 days

Purchase links: The Plague on AmazonThe Plague on Google Play

Citation for my physical copy, which I read back in 1987, for a Stanford class on existentialism: Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

Introductory note

This book was published in 1947 in the original French. It is perfect or this “Interwar Years” unit. We just finished WWI and will be discussing how WWII came to be. Camus’ The Plague took a real event, an Bubonic Plague outbreak in Algeria, and turned it into an allegory for life under Nazi occupation. The book can also serve to show the radical change in worldviews of people who wrote after World Wars I and II from those who wrote before. The philosophy is bleak and the tone scientific.

As always, consider reading the questions BEFORE you do the reading for the question set. That will make your reading easier because you’ll know for what you are looking. There will be spoilers if you do it that way though, so pick your poison.

Keep your phone handy while you read and ask it to define words as you go along. Siri or OK Google should end your need to skip over the meaning of words you don’t know.

In our COVID-19 times, the book serves double-duty, it both explains parts of the historical period we are studying and it serves as an extreme but oddly familiar metaphor for our own epidemic experience.

Question sets


Set One 

Background and my paper pages 1-35 || Google Play Chapters 1-4 

(or to the break that begins with “The word “Plague” had just been uttered…”
in other paper copies or electronic texts)

1. OPTIONAL QUESTION – What is existentialism? Explain in 50 words or less in your own words. Look it up on the internet.

2. OPTIONAL QUESTION – What are the main symptoms of the bubonic plague and what are the three main forms of “The Black Death?”

3. OPTIONAL QUESTION – How does the bubonic plague spread? What is it’s life-cycle?

4. Fill in the TT-style comparison chart below detailing the similarities and differences between COVID-19 and the bubonic plague. (You can insert a drawn chart into your Google or Word doc before you upload it if you would rather do this part on paper.)

Bubonic Plague unique Shared by both diseases COVID-19 unique

5. Consider the following text section before responding. In this first bit, Camus spends some time clinically analyzing Oran, the town in which he sets the novel. In a paragraph modeled on his writing about Oran, how would you similarly summarize your hometown, Seattle?

1.1 town quote

6. Camus leaves various little foreshadowing bits or understated little details (sort of like a mystery novel or a horror movie) showing the progression of the plague in the town. List at least five of the details he drops that show the reader the rise of the plague. Why does Camus do this in the way he does?

7. Consider the following text section before responding. This section is crucial for understanding both the character of Rieux AND for understanding how the media and thoughtful professionals failed to warn of the threat of the rise of Nazi occupation. What Does this exchange say about Rieux’s character and what does it say about media failings?

1.2 media and Rieux

8. Do you see any parallels to our present COVID-19 situation and the excerpt above? Explain.

9. What do you notice about who in Oran gets the plague first? Why is this so? Do you see any parallels to our present COVID-19 situation?

10. Consider the following text section before responding. Google April 30 and Hitler. What two key dates happened for that individual on that calendar date? How does knowing those two facts change how you read this paragraph?

1.3 April 30

11. Consider the following text section before responding. Again, what does doctors’ conversation say about both the beginings of Nazi occupation AND the start of the COVID-19 epidemic in the USA (and elsewhere if you like)?

1.4 refusing to name

Set Two 

My paper pages 35 – 73 || Google Play Chapters 5-9 

(or to the break that begins with “While our townspeople were trying to come to terms…” in other paper copies or electronic texts)

1. Thinking of this book as a metaphor for Nazi occupation, for whom would the rats be a metaphor in that sort of history? Explain.

2. The narrator has been very cagey about identifying himself (herself?). At this point in the book, who do you suspect the narrator is? Is it someone the book has already introduced or someone else? Explain your answer with at least one quote as evidence.

3. Consider the following text section before responding. Again, thinking of plague (pestilence) as a metaphor for fascism, do you agree with Camus that the world will never be safe so long as militaristic, nationalistic, and authoritarian politics remain a possibility? Will humanity ever be capable of preparing for, and thus avoiding, outbreaks of vicious political systems? Explain.

2.1 the surprise

4. Consider the following text section before responding. Do history and statistics erase actual individual people? Is there any way to avoid this problem of historical and statistical practice that you can imagine and/or suggest?

2.2 statistics

5. After reading how Camus’ narrator describes the clerk named Grand, why do you think Camus chose to name his character “Grand?” Was it a good choice? Explain.

6. After reading Chapter 7, the doctors’ conference chapter, do you think that chapter holds any lessons for how we are dealing with COVID-19 today? Do you find the chapter realistic?

7. Consider the following text section before responding. When this book was written, humans could imagine something like video chat, messaging, etc., but it wasn’t real. In what ways will our present communications structures make the emotional/relationship experience of COVID-19 different from how people of the past experienced quarantines?

2.3 communications

Set Three

My paper pages 74 – 105 || Google Play Chapters 10-13 

(or to the break that begins with “Shortly after Father Paneloux’s Sermon…” in other paper copies or electronic texts)

1. This chapter explains the economic effects of the Oran plague. In what ways are effects similar and different from Seattle’s present economic situation? Why is one of them worse than the other? Explain with details from the text.

2. What does Rambert want from Dr. Rieux? Are there “Ramberts” walking around doing similar things today? Give an example.

3. Consider the following text section before responding. After a while Rieux begins to change how he acts and thinks as a doctor. Are these changes good? Are they necessary for doctors? Are our present COVID-19-era doctors going to go through something similar?

3.1 doctor burnout

4. In the Father Paneloux section, where he gives his great sermon, do you see similarities to how people are turning to or from religion today?

5. Consider the following text section before responding. Obviously, the author Camus, or at least the narrator is not very religious. But do you agree with Paneloux and some of the citizens of Oran that a plague is in the end an act of God’s will? Explain.

3.2 divine punishment

6. Rambert’s struggle to get the officials, the doctors, and the bureaucracy of Oran to give him special consideration to leave the town and head home fails. Importantly, it shows that bureaucracies just keep grinding along, no matter how weird life gets. Give a few modern examples of moments when you have noticed Seattle, Washington, or the USA’s bureaucracies sticking to old forms and rules.


Set Four

My paper pages 105 – 174  || Google Play Chapters 14-18 

(or to the break that begins with “Throughout September and October…” in other paper copies or electronic texts)

1. Consider the following text section before responding. When I read this book back in the 1980s, I made no notes on the following passage. In the COVID-19 times of today, this passage and what it says about the experience of time during an occupation or quarantine sticks out. Do you empathize with the old man counting his peas? Explain.

4.1 time

2. What does it mean that “the plague was becoming pneumonic?” Why would this change the logic of the disease? In what way is this different from COVID-19?

3. During our present COVID-19 event, what examples have you seen that are similar to Tarrou’s proposed unofficial sanitary brigades? Provide at least one reasonably detailed example.

4. Dr. Rieux doesn’t believe in God and he doesn’t seem to have any particular morality in some religious sense. So why does he work so hard to fight the plague, even at great risk to himself? Do you believe this sort of person actually exists? Explain.

5. Consider the following text section before responding. What belief about human nature is the narrator (and/or Camus) arguing against? In the end, where does the narrator see as necessary for a human to be truly moral? Do you agree with the narrator (and/or Camus)? Explain.

4.2 ignorance and immorality

6. In this part of the book, the narrator is back to talking about “the narrator”. What is your present guess for whom the narrator is? What is your reasoning/evidence for your supposition?

7. What does Rambert’s attempt to escape tell you about the United States’ and the world’s chances of actually containing COVID-19 before a vaccine is finally workable? Do you think that people actually do behave like Rambert in our present times?

8. Consider the following text section before responding. Is what Rambert says about quarantine during the plague applicable to our present shelter-in-place under COVID-19? Do you think it will become so before school resumes in a month or so? Explain.

4.3 repetition

9. Consider the following text section before responding. Rambert, Rieux, and Tarrou have an argument about the morality of fighting evil (the plague, Nazi occupation, COVID-19). In that argument, they propose two approaches to “doing the right thing”. One is to be true to one’s own heart and the other is to serve common decency? Which side do you think has the better argument? Explain.
Rieux says,

4.4 individual versus social good

10. Why does Rambert decide to join the sanitary brigades, at least temporarily while he awaits his chance to escape?

11. Consider the following text section before responding. The Plague was written after WWII and the Holocaust. Anyone writing or thinking about smoke from burned bodies in a crematoria must have been considering the Nazi death camps of the Holocaust. Germans after WWII often claimed that they didn’t know what was happening in the camps, or could do nothing to stop the workings of the camps. What point does the narrator (and/or Camus) make about the plague that must also be made about WWII-era Germans?

4.5 crematoria

12. Does it surprise you that Camus never really includes WWII, even though the book was set in 1940, which was during the war when Oran was actually occupied by the Nazis? Why do you think Camus left the actual war out, even as he dramatized the real last major outbreak of plague in the world?


Set Five

My paper pages 175 – the end || Google Play Chapters 19 – the end 

1. Why does Rambert decide to give up his quest to escape Oran?

2. For what reason did Camus allow his narrator to include such a long detailed description of the death from plague of M. Orthon’s son?

3. After the death of the child, Father Paneloux and Dr. Rieux have an exchange about God and faith in a world that decides to allow the death of children. After the Holocaust and the tens and millions of deaths caused by WWII, similar arguments (within people and within society) were common. Do you agree with Dr. Rieux’s rejection of love for a “scheme of things in which children are put to torture?” Explain.

4. Consider the following text section before responding. In our present COVID-19 days, we also talk a lot about “flattening the curve.” Will you feel, as Dr. Rieux does, happy when many people are still dying and being infected, but no more than the day before? Is just stopping the rise of death and infection something that would make you rub your hands in happiness? Explain.

5.1 flattening the curve

5. Consider the following text section before responding. Are we also seeing this sort of inequality in our COVID-19 days? Given an example.

5.2 inequality

6. Consider the following text section before responding. If you were dangerously sick, would you want, as Tarrou does, the absolute truth from your doctor? Or would you rather that they lied to you to keep your spirits up since the truth wouldn’t really help you? Explain.

5.3 Death of Tarrou

7. Consider the following text section before responding. Do you think that Rieux’s survival from the plague and what he “won” is really enough for the people who will survive losing loved ones in the COVID-19 era? Would that victory be enough for you? Or would you feel that you had “lost the match”? Explain.

5.4 winning the match

8. Sticking with the quote from question 7 (“lost the match”), do you think the 85% of Russians who survived the Nazi assault, the Jews who survived the Holocaust, and the survivors who observed the deaths of tens of millions under Japanese occupation during WWII would have agreed with the idea that they had “won the match” as Tarrou envisioned it?

9. Consider the following text section before responding. Do you think COVID-19 will, when it is finally over, leave permanent changes on the way you think, on your personality? What do you expect those changes to be?

5.5 plague mentality changes

10. As we sit here waiting for the peak of COVID-19 to really kick in a couple of weeks (we aren’t even at the flattening part yet), can you imagine the joy of the people that Camus describes as the plague comes to an end in Oran? Can you empathize, or does this just seem mythical?

11. When the narrator confessed their identity, were you surprised? Do you think the mysterious narrator was a good or bad idea on the author Camus’ part? Explain.

12. Consider the following text section before responding. What were your thoughts about this quote, in terms of fascism/Nazis, COVID-19, and history?

5.6 bear witness

13. Why does Camus have his narrator end the book in such a non-joyful tone? Do you think that tone is appropriate?

14. This book over-dramatized the actual plague outbreak in Algeria, took liberties with the science of the Bubonic Plague, and ignored WWII even though it was actually going on when the plague was occurring in 1940. Do you think Camus’ book makes for good history, for a good lesson, as a result?

15. List the main theses or conclusions that Camus asserts/proposes in this book.

16. Did you like the book? Why or why not?

%d bloggers like this: