The Plague by Albert Camus

Shortly after the New Year of 1960, a powerful sports car crashed in the French town of Villeblevin in Burgundy, killing two of its occupants. One was the publisher Michel Gallimard; the other was the writer Albert Camus ( In Camus’ pocket was an unused train ticket and in the boot of the car his unfinished autobiography The First Man. Camus was 46.

Born in Algeria in 1913, Camus became a working class hero and icon of the French Resistance. His friendship with Sartre has been well documented, as has their falling out; and although Camus has been dubbed both an Absurdist and Existentialist philosopher, he denied he was even a philosopher at all, preferring to think of himself as a writer who expressed the realities of human existence. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Camus’ legacy is a rich one, as an author of plays, novels and essays, and as a political thinker who desperately sought a peaceful solution to the War for Independence in his native Algeria.

One of his most celebrated works of fiction is The Plague (published first in French as La Peste in 1947) whose basic plotline is simple enough. The people of the North African town of Oran are in the grip of a virulent plague. Cut off from the rest of the world, they each respond in their own way to the challenge of the deadly bacillus.

Among them is Dr Rieux, a humanitarian and healer, and it is through his eyes that we witness the course of the epidemic. From this platform a number of powerful themes emerge. There is certainly the theme of personal moral responsibility. The morally superior person qualifies as such on account of persistent small acts of kindness rather than grandiose gestures. The book, also, can be read as an allegory of the German occupation of France during the Second World War and hence the strictures and choices that are made so much more acute in regions of conflict.

The flavour of existentialism we find in Albert Camus¬†is less metaphysical and more practical than that of Sartre or Heidegger.¬†The Plague is a short and compelling read which should shake our complacency, if we’re guilty of that, simply because our moral choices are not so very insistent. Camus died in that car crash more than half a century ago now. His life and work continue to be debated. I hope this short novel prompts a hunger for more of his output and an interest in the man. If so, here are some leads:

Listen to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ broadcast from January 2008 about Camus available¬† as a podcast at

Follow up an interest in Camus with Sagi, Avi,  Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002) (

and McCarthy, Patrick, Camus: A Critical Study of his Life and Work (1982) (

and for a more in depth academic approach Hughes, E.J., The Cambridge Companion to Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)  (

Do also read an excellent Guardian article at  on why we should still read La Peste

A 1992 film, ‘La Peste’ (, shifts the setting to a South American town but retains Dr Rieux and the core themes of the novel. With William Hurt as Dr Bernard Rieux and Sandrine Bonnaire as Martine Rambert.

256 pages in Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition.

ISBN 978-0141185132

Albert Camus gazing into The Absurd

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