Relatively Speaking: The Plague, the Stranger, and the Life of Albert Camus
"You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life." (Albert Camus) The Algerian born, French existentialist and absurd writer, Albert Camus wrote two amazingly famous pieces of literature which changed many people’s point of view on life: The Plague and The Stranger. These two works of pure genius have been printed in more than three languages and have been reprinted in more than two editions (Kunitz 163). Camus’ books have an absurd and existential feel that stresses individual existence, and consequently, individual freedom and choice (Lee). And yet, an underlying theme of death, negativity, and the meaninglessness of life still prevail as an obvious theme. “For Camus, the world was ‘absurd’, without purpose, leading only to death, yet all the more invigorating precisely because of this.” (Lee) In the world of Albert Camus, a clear line can be drawn from the events and happenings encircling his life to the characters, plotlines, and conflicts seen in his books.
Albert Camus was born on November 7th, 1913 in Mondovi, Algeria. He later grew up in the Belcourt district of Algiers in Algeria. His mother, Catherine Sintes Camus, was illiterate and partly deaf. His father, an Alsatian, wasn’t involved in Camus’ life at all; he was killed in 1914 during World War One (Kunitz 164). For Camus, life was a hard, hopeless, and almost meaningless struggle to survive.
In the late 1920’s, he had to work many jobs to make it through college at the University of Algiers (Lee). He worked in the weather bureau, in an automobile-accessory firm, and in a shipping company. Camus eventually paid his debts off, and then in 1930, he graduated with a major in philosophy and a desire to pursue a career in teaching and journalism.
After graduating, Camus went to work in the Theatre De L’Equipe (Webster). After the theatre was shut down, Camus became a journalist. He began his career by writing for an Algerian paper. In 1940 he lost his job after he wrote on the controversial and provocative subject of the Muslims in Algeria. The loss of his job put Camus into a short depression, but compelled to live longer, he decided to move to Paris to start over at a new job. When in Paris, Camus “joined the French resistance against the Nazi’s of Germany” (Chabinyc). Still desiring to become a famous journalist, Camus met up with existential thinker Jean Paul Sartre and became co-editor of the underground left wing French newspaper “Combat!” During World War Two, “Combat!” was an important tool used by the French to convey and communicate information (Webster). In this way, by writing for “Combat!,” Camus began to gain fame and recognition as an accomplished writer. In 1942, during his job as an editor, he wrote his first and most famous book, The Stranger (Magill). He also wrote at least five other books and essays, and he eventually won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. Only three years later, on January 4th, 1960, Camus was killed in a car accident on the way to Paris that “cut short the career of one of the most important literary figures of the Western world when he was at the very summit of his powers.” (The Plague Afterword).
The Stranger: Camus' Most Famous Work
The Stranger begins with the absurd opening line, “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” (The Stranger 1). Mersault, the protagonist, seems emotionally unscathed by the death of his mother. He nonchalantly takes a day off of work as a shipping clerk (Camus once worked as a shipping clerk to help pay for college (Lee)) to attend his mother’s funeral. Once at the funeral procession, Mersault enjoys a cup of coffee while chatting with his mother’s caretaker. When asked to see the body, Mersault “puts his hands up and stops the caretaker.” (The Stranger 6). Mersault never shed a single tear for his mother nor does he ever show a saddened emotion. The only thing that seemed to upset Mersault was the fact that he had to break the everyday cycle of his life, by taking a day off from work to go to his mother’s funeral. The very next day, as if nothing had previously happened, Mersault casually decides to go swimming and to see a movie with his girlfriend, Marie.
Mersault shows the absurdity of his character when Marie asks him if he loves her. He responds by saying that he is not concerned with love or marriage and he says that it doesn’t matter anyway. He is the kind of character that is psychologically separated from the world around him. Usually meaningful and important events have seemingly no meaning to Mersault.
In the weeks that follow, Mersault becomes involved with a neighbor of his: a violent pimp that goes by the name of Raymond. Raymond is proud of his evil actions and is glad to tell Mersault about them. He cons Mersault into becoming his friend and starts to use him for self-betterment. Raymond tells Mersault that he’s been beating up his Arabian girlfriend for cheating on him; he wants revenge and needs Mersault’s help to kill the Arabs that she cheated on him with. Raymond then convinces Mersault to write a bad letter to further worsen his girlfriend’s situation so that he’ll have a reason to beat her again. Mersault agrees to the task and then emotionlessly watches Raymond abuse his girlfriend. Afterwards, Mersault goes to the police station and lies on Raymond’s behalf.
Obviously, Mersault cannot make good decisions by himself. He is too squeamish and weak-willed to make his own decisions. Thus, he is very indecisive and lets someone else do the decision-making. This is the kind of behavior that Albert Camus was said to have had (Chabinyc). Mersault is also easily influenced. He seems to conform to the demands of the violent and intimidating Raymond. Mersault cares too much about what others think about him; it’s about the only thing that Mersault appears to care about.
The following day, Raymond, Marie, and Mersault go to the beach to have lunch with Masson, a friend of Raymonds. There, they encounter the Arabs that they had been talking about. Mersault doesn’t want to see anyone get killed, so he gets Raymond’s gun away from him and puts it in his pocket. Never the less, Raymond begins to fight with the Arabs and is stabbed twice. He goes to see the doctor, and quite quickly, is bandaged up and ready to go back.
Mersault decides to go cool off and along the way he spots the Arab that stabbed Raymond again. “I saw that Raymond’s man had come back. He was alone. He was lying on his back, with his hands behind his head, his forehead in the shade of the rock, the rest of his body in the sun.” (The Stranger 57-58) Mersault begins to get very nervous and,
"The trigger gave; I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started. I shook off the sweat and sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace.” (The Stranger 59)
The second half of the book contains the tale and falling actions that result from Mersault’s murderous act. He is subjected to the Algerian jail system where, under intense scrutiny, still divulges no motive for his actions. The truth of the matter is that he really has no motive for his crime. The magistrate that often visits Mersault asks him if he believes in God. Mersault responds truthfully and says that he does not.
During the trial, the judge and jurors were more interested in the behaviors that Mersault engaged in on the day and days following his mother’s death, than in his crime that brought him to the trial. They repeatedly question him and pointed to the fact that he showed no real or rational emotions at his mother’s funeral. They wanted to show that he was guilty by playing on the fact that Mersault is heartless and indifferent about everything. In the end, Mersault’s lawyer threw up his hands and gave up his case. For if Mersault is unwilling to help his own case, then his appointed lawyer would be of no help to him either. Not long after his lawyer’s abdication, Mersault was sentenced to the guillotine.
"As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself – so like a brother, really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate." (The Stranger 122-123)
Parallelism with Between The Stranger and Camus' Life
As previously stated, Albert Camus is an existentialist and absurd writer. He believed that life was like a big falling action, “the minute you are born, you are doomed to die” (Website) and “Life is meaningless because you will end up dieing any ways.” (Lee)
The events in the stranger can be tied back to Camus’ life also by the fact that Mersault and Marie are in a relationship that is somewhat meaningless to him. In 1934 Albert Camus married Simone Hié. This relationship lasted only two years. They divorced in 1936. (Chabinyc) Similar events exist in The Stranger, such as the following facts: Marie isn’t always there for Mersault and she stops visiting Mersault after he has been in jail for two months (She doesn’t even try to defend Mersault at his trial). A strong tie to Camus’ real life situations is made with the connection between Simone Hié and Marie of The Stranger.
During Camus’s life, he was preoccupied by the concepts of human suffering, pain, and death and the human desire to resist, rebel, and revolt against those pains (Kunitz 165). Along with his other works, Albert Camus wrote another very famous and remembered book entitled The Plague (Magill). The Plague is, “A gripping tale of unrelieved horror, of survival and resilience, and of the ways in which humankind confront death. The Plague is a parable of ageless moral resonance.” (The Plague) His book, The Plague, puts those ideas of rebellion and resistance to suffering and death into a story form. The book addresses the responses of the citizens of the Algerian city, Oran, which is eventually quarantined due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague. The people slowly make an effort to stop the plague and to end the suffering, but all of their attempts are in vain. Camus demonstrates that it is a noble deed to confront tragedy head on and try to resist it, even if you fail.
The Plague: Camus' Second Novel
The Plague was written in five parts, so that it can be more easily understood and more easily read. Part one begins with narration from an unnamed character (in the end he reveals himself as Dr. Bernard Rieux). He states that the book you are reading will be written with no objectivity; it will be written using only first hand accounts on first hand eye-witness statements. In a sense, it is from this character’s point of view that we watch the rise and eventual fall of the bubonic plague.
Dr. Rieux finishes his surgery for the day, and finds a bloody, dead rat on the porch. At first, he does not think much of it. But, as the next few days go on, more and more bloody, dead rats are found. Once the amount of dead rats starts to get out of control, the city initiates a “collect and cremate” (The Plague 14) project to get rid of the corpses. Later on, on the first day of collection, the plague’s first victim was chosen. Soon after, more and more victims were removed from their homes. Dr. Rieux tries hard to save many of the ill; he lances the swelling wounds and orders plague serum. Still, even with his heroic efforts, most of his patients die. He pleads with the city to get more funding to buy a better serum, and for a new sanitation policy. The city decides to wait and make sure that this really is an epidemic of the bubonic plague before they will take any action. Several months later, in springtime, the number of deaths is high, and Oran becomes quarantined.
Part one shows a beginning to the rise in the conflict between the people and the plague; or actually the people and their desire to maintain their current habits and daily rituals. They would like to place blame and responsibility on everyone else. The city is very slow to address the problem of the rats. And as one character stated, “It might be - almost anything. There’s nothing definite as yet.” (The Plague 21) This evidently shows the public’s inability to accept reality, and their fear of what reality is; they seem to rationalize the events by making up things, so that it doesn’t seem as bad as it really is.
Albert Camus was once quoted as saying “Crushing truths perish by being acknowledged” in the middle of his life (Lee). Simply put, he’s saying that when you face reality and the truth, it isn’t as bad as previously thought, and if it is bad it can be resisted. Whatever card life deals to you, you must play your part and deal with what comes, even though everyone will end up dieing anyway.
Part two begins, “From now on, it can be said that the plague was the concern of all of us” (The Plague 67) and the city is quarantined, laid siege by a wickedly vile disease. All travel to and from the city has been stopped; not even mail can get into the city, everyone begins to fear the spread of the exceedingly contagious bubonic plague. The denizens of Oran realize what true isolation is. They are their own prisoners. The normal cycle of their daily lives are interrupted and they can’t seem to get past it.
Raymond Rambert, a journalist from Paris, finds himself trapped in Oran; he desperately tries to escape the city to go home to his wife. Dr. Rieux refuses to grant him the “right” to leave the city. He attempts to bribe authorities, and uses other tactics to try escape the plague infested city.
Many more months pass and it’s now summer, the number of deaths is announced daily instead of weekly. Anyone seen trying to escape the city is punished under the Algerian justice system by being thrown into jail. A newspaper, The Plague Chronicle, is started; it eventually becomes an advertiser’s market where they try to sell “cures” for the plague.
The plague serum that Dr. Rieux had previously ordered has become ineffective in its abilities to fight the plague; so “volunteer helpers for the sanitary groups” (The Plague 136) are brought in to help fight the plague. Many people don’t want to fight because they believe that resistance is futile; and that it is always “someone else’s responsibility” to do the hard work. Dr. Rieux is adamant that fighting the plague will help; it is “common decency” (The Plague 163) he says, and it is for the good of everyone. Rambert begins to feel a bit of sorrow for Dr. Rieux’s courageous efforts to help the people and, “At a very early hour next day Rambert rang up [Dr. Rieux]. ‘Would you agree to my working with you until I find some way of getting out of the town?’” (The Plague 164). Rambert has chosen help fight the plague until he has some means of escape.
In part two, the people of Oran come to the realization that there is more to life than their everyday bustle and thoughts of the plague; that there is a purpose in life and that death could in fact end it at anytime. And for Albert Camus, a death by any means is still a death. Albert Camus wrote similarly to his life events; at this time, he was trying to find a purpose – in a sense – the meaning of life. It is unknown to whether or not Camus found his purpose, but many scholars belief it so. (Magill)
By the end of summer, the calamity of the plague is still at a full throttle. Funerals for the dead are curtailed to a simple burial precession in a mass grave. In due course, the cemeteries become over-filled, and mass graves can no longer be used. The crematories begin to reach there maximum. The public’s point of view on their situation begins to change again; they finally begin to realize what this bitter unhappiness really is. The memories of absent loved ones fade away as new memories are instigated. At first, the public did not ever mention this unspeakable disaster, but now, as it’s become a part their life, they can’t help but talk about it.
The plague has brought the city of Oran both closer and farther apart. The people have become closer because they long for human contact; the plague has isolated them from the outside world. And yet, it has separated everyone, for the plague is a very contagious disease, and everyone is a possible carrier. Each day, the plague separates people from Oran by taking their lives away. Close friends and relatives of the victims, certainly suffer the effects of a permanent separation and tribulation brought on by the plague.
Rambert finally gets the opportunity to escape, but he passes it up because he would feel too ashamed if he were to leave now. A new serum as arrived and unfortunately, it fails to cure the plague. A few more weeks pass and, “[Dr. Rieux] noticed a change at this stage of the epidemic,” (The Plague 258). The Bubonic plague was beginning to subside. It became clear that an end was in sight.
In February, the city is un-quarantined. Rambert's wife comes to meet him from Paris. Rambert finds himself greatly changed by the plague.
"For even Rambert felt a nervous tremor at the thought that soon he would have to confront a love and a devotion that the plague months had slowly refined to a pale abstraction, with the flesh-and-blood woman who had give rise to them. If only he could put the clock back and be once more the man who, at the outbreak of the epidemic, had had only one thought and one desire: to escape and return to the woman he loved! But that, he knew, was out of the question now; he had changed too greatly." (The Plague 294)
It is at this time that Dr. Rieux reveals himself as the narrator of The Plague. Dr. Rieux is happy for Rambert and for everything else; his efforts to fight the plague in the end were not in vain. Dr. Rieux survived, and helped many others endure the torture of the plague. The townspeople celebrate the end of the plague by dancing in the city streets. The plague was finally over.
Parallelism with Between The Plague and Camus' Life
In 1930 Albert Camus contracted tuberculosis, and it became an inspiration in writing The Plague. Tuberculosis was, in fact, very present in his life. Learning to deal with his disease and coping with the problems that it brought on became an integral part of Camus’ everyday life. Although it did not lead him to his demise, it did prevent him from fighting in WWII.
Through writing The Plague, Camus tried to answer many philosophical questions that he had in his life such as: What is the meaning of life? What compels us to struggle to survive against impossible odds? How do we deal with long-term isolation? How do humans react in times of catastrophe and calamity? And, if we all end up dieing, what is the advantage of living it?
When the city of Oran was quarantined, the denizens became isolated. Isolation played a big part in Albert Camus’ life. His father died during WWI, thus leaving young Camus without a fatherly figure (Kunitz). His mother was hardly there for him either; she was slightly deaf and utterly illiterate. She could not provide the care or funds to help Camus aspire in his life (Kunitz). Because of the fact that Albert Camus was, in a sense, without parents, he lived a life of isolation and loneliness. Consequently, these events alone probably lead him to his absurd and existential views toward life.
The Plague also shed light on the ideals of human struggling and survival. Especially in the early years of his life, Camus struggled to get by. To make it through college, he had to work at any job he could get. He worked in the weather bureau, in an automobile-accessory firm, and in a shipping company (Lee). After he graduated from the University of Algiers, many years later, he lost his job, and again struggled to make the right decisions about where to take his life to next.
The Plague and The Stranger brought new light to the meanings of existentialist and absurd writing. These two literary works brilliantly portray a pessimistic view of life and death in a way that no other books ever have. The fact that meaningless death exists countless times in these stories, illustrates that Camus believed life itself to be meaningless. The Stranger’s relative themes were: the pointlessness of life and the indifference a character and his attitude have that can lead him to do meaningless and pointless things. The Plague’s themes deal with human isolation, suffering, fear, and catastrophic mass death. “For Camus, the world was "absurd", without purpose, leading only unto death, yet all the more invigorating precisely because of this.” (Lee) Both books lead the reader into the vast strongholds of Albert Camus’ mind, thus revealing small bits and pieces to the ever bitter, yet interesting insight of his life.
“Albert Camus.” Webster’s Biographical Dictionary. Springfield: G & C Merriam, 1972
Albert Camus Website. 25 Mar. 2003 <http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~rsauzier/Camus.html>
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage International, 1989
Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage International, 1991
Chabinyc, Michael L. Albert Camus. 25 Mar. 2003 <http://www.levity.com/corduroy/camus.htm>
Kunitz, Stanley J. Twentieth Century Authors. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1955. 163-165
Lee. Albert Camus: The Stranger. 25 Mar. 2003 <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/1311/camus.html>
Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper and Row, 1957. 836
© 2014 Christopher Wanamaker