The Theme of Suffering and Despondency in the “The Plagues” by Albert Camus

The Plague by Albert Camus describes a significant plague epidemic in the Algerian city of Oran which in 1948 was a French colony. The city has a population of about two hundred thousand people who are either staying in poor or wealthy neighborhoods. The city residents are a mixture of native Algerians, English, German and French. The plague begins by the sudden appearance of several thousands of rats out in the open and shortly afterward, they die. This is followed by panic among the city and soon after authorities begin collecting and cremating the dead rats. After a few days, Michel who works together with Dr. Rieux dies after a short illness ad quickly enough the disease spreads. Dr. Rieux tries to warn city authorities that the infection causing the deaths is the plague no one listens until it’s too late. Finally, when it’s impossible to deny the existence of the epidemic, the gates are shut off, and quarantine is imposed. Dr. Rieux and other characters together with the people of Oran go through a great deal of suffering.

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Initially when the rats begin dying followed by several people showing up at his hospital with signs of a strange disease, Dr. Rieux a diligent doctor suspects something is not right. Dr. Rieux vividly describes the illness as “started vomiting, pressing his hand to his groin, and running a high fever accompanied by delirium” (Camus, 22). From the doctor’s description of the disease seemed to cause so much distress to the point before the patient died, he said “It’s like fire,’ he whispered. My insides are burning’ (Camus, 22). To paint a picture of what might befall the town, Dr. Rieux describes the patient as “His face had gone livid, a grayish green, his lips were bloodless, his breath came in sudden gasps…the unhappy man seemed to be stifling under some unseen pressure” (Camus, 23). Here Dr. Rieux describes the amount of suffering that lies ahead.

The next character in “The Plague” who introduces to the theme of suffering is the Cottard, a criminal who tries to kill himself after he is detained. When asked why he tried to commit suicide he replies by saying that was an act of self-grief (Camus, 31). The self-grief is bone out of internal distress after finally being caught. In the larger context, this paints the kind of grief that is about to befall Oran. As the dead kept piling up, Dr. Rieux attempted in vain to convince the local government that indeed it was bubonic plague, but no one heeded to his concerns, even the town’s magistrate, Othon. Eventually, when the scale of the sick and dead are too big ignore, quarantine is declared where darkness then comes over Oran. The narrator describes the disillusionment as

“For our fellow citizens that summer sky, and the streets thick in dust, gray as their present lives, had the same ominous import as the hundred deaths now weighing daily on the town. That incessant sunlight and those bright hours associated with a siesta or with holidays no longer invited, as in the past, to frolics and flirtation on the beaches. Now they rang hollow in the silence of the closed town; they had lost the golden spell of happier summers. The plague had killed all colors, vetoed’ (Camus, 80).

As the sickness inflicts more suffering to the people, Dr. Rieux performs all he can to help with the bleak situation at the hospital. Every time he steps out of the hospital, he is met with “the faces of the passers-by, often turning away disgustedly from their look of unrelieved gloom” (Camus, 82). As the conditions in the town deteriorate, the narrator is stunned by the series of events unfolding before his eyes where events have turned from doom and gloom to civil unrest. “…completely out of hand’ (Camus, 84), Dr. Rieux describes the situation in the town where even the police were overwhelmed with the amount of chaos that was happening.

Rambert who is a journalist who formerly worked in Paris where he was staying with a woman, she loved is also expressing regret and disillusion on the current state of events in Oran. His suffering comes love to the point he even offers to bribe Dr. Rieux in exchange for a healthy certificate so that he can go back to the woman he loves. All through the novel, the theme of suffering and despair is prevalent with every character having experiences of their own to narrate. The town’s magistrate us not left behind; his son contacts the disease where he later dies. And to atone for his indifference that helped the disease spread, the magistrate decides to join in helping those who are quarantined, but he dies upon undergoing great suffering.

The novel illustrates the suffering and feeling of disillusion people often go through in times of great disaster such as during an epidemic. Suffering begins physically through to emotional and finally to despair and grief over the loved ones who died.

Works Cited

  1. Camus, Albert. The Plague. Translated by Stuart Gilbert, Random House Inc, 1948, www.24grammata.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/The_Plague__Albert_Camus-24grammata.com_.pdf.
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The Theme of Suffering and Despondency in the “The Plagues” by Albert Camus. (2021, Dec 28). Retrieved June 29, 2022 , from
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