Fittingly for this moment, Camus takes us on the journey of a walled city – a place of mediocrity and ugliness – from the first signs of plague to the rejoicing at its waning. Through the eyes of a kind and dedicated doctor, he shows us the suffering of victims, the anger and arrogance that give way to indifference and defeat. The Church has no adequate answer, neither do the doctors. “Thus, too, [the townspeople] came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose. Even the past, of which they thought incessantly, had a savor only of regret.”
As the city is closed off from the world in an effort of containment, its residents find themselves prisoners. “No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the cross-currents of revolt and fear set up by these.”
In a nod to our current climate, he observes, “Thus, while plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and… exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts.” We see people with money holding extravagant parties, out of reach of those who can no longer afford even bread.
A visiting journalist, trapped by the lockdown, spends months arranging an escape so he can unite with the woman he loves. He pulls strings, he invokes important people, he bribes sentries, all to no avail – he is as trapped as any nobody. Somewhat later, with his sense of injustice prickling him, he discovers that the doctor, with whom he works, put his own wife on a train to a sanitarium just before the plague struck. He not only cannot see her, he’s not even sure whether she is recovering from her malady, or if her doctors are “sparing” him the truth. The journalist, suddenly aware he is not the only person suffering, is shamed, and begins contributing to the plague-fighting effort.
Early in the epidemic, the priest invokes suffering as God’s plan: ”From the dawn of recorded history the scourge of God has humbled the proud of heart and laid low those who hardened themselves against Him. Ponder this well, my friends, and fall on your knees.”
But after months of ministering to the sick and dying, he is shaken by witnessing the horrific death of a child ravaged by the disease. Suddenly, this agony no longer seems the will of God, so his tune changes: “Who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering?... My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything. And who among you, I ask, would dare to deny everything?” Thus the priest clings to a lesser version of the faith he lives for, unable to cast it away but stricken from finding any glory in it.
And Camus leaves us with a challenge – does enduring the plague change us? Are we learning anything? He points out, through his narrator the doctor, that the nature of the illness continues to evolve – first, it is a bubonic attack; later, it infects the lungs. The serums and vaccines are occasionally effective, but near the end, as though the plague has exhausted itself, suddenly treatments that failed are now saving lives. It is a warning against thinking we know more than we do, and that the virus must follow a logical course. No, it doesn’t. And he assures us it can always come back. The best we can do is protect each other.