28 February 1996
In The Plague the town of Oran was visited unexpectedly by a plague. It began innocently enough with dead rats turning up in the streets. Even though measures were taken to control the spread, it was too late. The town was quarantined, isolated from the rest of the world. Everyone who was in the town when the plague broke out was trapped, placing several visitors in a town in which they never intended to stay. When the plague began to take human lives, Dr. Rieux, in conjunction with the Prefect's office, formed a "committee" to devise a plan of attack against this deadly and formidable enemy. Rieux worked tirelessly with the sick to aid their recovery; more often than not, he failed in that task as the fatalities continued to rise. Dr. Castel worked to perfect a cure, a cure that eventually came, but not before thousands of the town's inhabitants had died of the disease.
Dr. Rieux is the main character and the narrator. Quite appropriately too since, by Sartre's characterization of an existentialist, Dr. Rieux is very much one. Appropriate since the novel explores several aspects of existentialism. He denies the existence of God for the simple reason that if He existed and was just as the priests described, there would be no need of doctors like himself, God would cure all. Sartre said that the first principle of existentialism was, "Man is nothing but that which he makes himself". On this point, one observes that the doctor is a self-made man having come from a not very well to do family. He worked hard to get where he was: a respected physician in large port city. In the process of pursuing his career, he made himself. After the plague broke out in full force, the doctor took on a sort of quiet sadness, distancing himself from his surroundings, as though hardened by all the death and sadness that he now faced every time he went to work.
The town itself is an example of existentialism. When the plague hit town, the inhabitants were cut off from the rest of the world, forcing them to evolve as their own "persons". There were precedents for the town's situation, those cities in Europe which had been plague stricken years before. Those in charge of the plague control looked at what had been done in those situations, and used what was logical as control for the disease. They did not take all that was tradition for these situations, rather they examined what had come before and took what fit their situation and used it in their own fashion.
As the plague began to decimate the population, officials wondered if they would have to resort to recruiting prisoners to do the menial and risky business of transporting the dead and dying. As the plague wore on, many businesses began to lay off workers. As the work was risky and the pay good, help was never hard to come by. There were actually long waiting lists formed for such jobs. However, money wasn't always the motivation. A few people aided out of the goodness of their hearts or out of a sense of duty to the town.
An example of one of the true volunteers would be that of the Magistrate, M. Othon. After losing his son, Jacques, to the plague, he became a changed man. Tarrou first noticed the change the day he visited him in the isolation camp. He'd never heard the man utter his son's name before. After being released from the isolation camp, M. Othon wanted to return to the camp and do what he could for the others who were still there. As M. Othon put it, it would make him feel closer to his son. This was yet another sign of this man's transformation, from a magistrate who was cold and distant to a person with feeling. Whether the transformation stemed from a sense of guilt over his former behavior and loss of his son or that he now had a new sense of responsibility to his fellow man, he had changed and was creating a new image for himself. Desperate times cause drastic changes.
This same theme of desperate times making drastic changes whether in society, or in an individual's life were common not only in the fictional town of Oran, but in post World War II Europe. Much of Europe was devastated by the war. There had been much upheaval, people hat been uprooted from their homes or separated from their families and had no way to get back to the rest of their family at the close of the war.
Much of Europe had to rebuild from ground zero. Many of the old ways and value systems were invalidated by the change that the war irrevocably brought to Europe. Each country had to rebuild itself on its own or else it would lose its identity. Thus bringing up the existential characteristic of man, or in this case a country. Each country was abandoned by its neighbors as Europe rebuilt itself, left decide for themselves what they would be or become. Also, existential processes were necessary since if one country influences another country, the possibility of that helped country loosing its identity is great. Another characteristic that would apply to a country is that of a man drawing his own portrait. In this case, the leaders of a country make decisions and lead their people, giving the rest of the world a chance to see what this country is like on a global scale. However, this is not always such a good thing. In the case of Hitler, Germany was judged on the misdeeds of a very select few that fed off the patriotism of the many.
A specific example of rebuilding can be given with Germany. Germany was bombed till almost 70% was laid waste. Many of the people went hungry. Half the babies born in the summer of 1945 died as a result of the poor conditions in which the country had plunged. Germany had to totally re-assess its place in the world and rebuild. Those who led in the rebuilding had to go back and look at where they had come from and re-examine their value set, and go back to the drawing board. The old rules just didn't work anymore. In their plight, they were alone in the world. No other country had been so totally ruined. This society was hated in general because of the atrocities to which Hitler led Germany. They rebuilt with help from the Allies, but that help was only financial and a little bit of manpower. For it to truly succeed the Germans had to want it too.
Eastern Europe changed as well. After Stalin's death, many of the strictest parts of the communist code fell out of practice. Many countries that had been under the Soviet thumb were now trying their hand at being their own country rather than a satellite of the USSR. It was difficult for a country such as Yugoslavia to stand on its own. It had been under the influence of Stalin's Moscow and even before he was gone, reforms began even though Stalin made it a very difficult road. They were cut off from their neighbors as they were surrounded by Communist nations, none of which could officially wish them success. Their location was also a cause of isolation. They were in Eastern Europe, the USSR's domain. It was difficult for any Western country to come in and show them the ropes of democracy. Yugoslavia had to figure it out on its own. Since it was on its own, it came up with its own version of democracy, a version flavored with western democracy and with the communism of their recent history.
Existentialism is a something that in many respects has been around for a long time. Some aspects or ideas about it can even be found in William Shakespeare's Henry V. The King went amongst his men as "Harry LeRoy" to know what they thought of their situation. He came across a few of the common soldiers and talked with them awhile. It the course of the conversation, the subject of who shall bear the sin if the King's cause not be just arose. The soldiers first thought that their obedience to the king wiped themselves of any blame. King Henry had another idea, that each man was his own self; that even though every man's duty was to the king, each man was responsible for his own soul. This very fact supports the statement that Sartre made, that the image of a man, once fashioned, is true in any age. Back in Shakespeare's day, some of the ideas that make up existentialism were being discussed. This gives rise to the posibility that existential philosophy is true no matter what era, whether it be the 17th century or the 20th century.
In today's society The Plague has relevance, especially with the threat of AIDS. The problems in our society today with AIDS is not unlike the threat of the plague in Oran. With the plague, no part of the social structure was spared. Lowly worker families all the way up to judge's families were hit. No one was spared and no one knew who would be next. It's the same with AIDS. No one knows who has it or who will be next. No class is spared. Famous people and every day people have been struck by this disease: Ryan White, Magic Johnson, Rock Hudson, and Freddie Mercury, a musician, to name but a few. Just as a cure was being sought in The Plague, the race for a cure for AIDS is on, but as yet has not been found. If it were not for dedicated scientists like Drs. Castel and Rieux, progress in that struggle for a cure might not be as far along as it is today. The perseverance and persistence of men like Dr. Rieux can be an example to everyone.