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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2018



An Existential Epidemic or Absurd Affliction? The Exploration of Identity in Albert Camus' The Plague

Shaji Khan, Head, Department of English, Govt. Degree College Thannamandi


What is man? This is the question that requisites most an answer, but still is one that eludes a solution. Since the inception of the written word itself, man has sought to find reasons for his existence, the reason why he has been put on the earth, and the purpose to which he must resign himself in order to term his life as successful and accomplished. Though interpretations of this catechism has much been discussed, the debate has yielded as many answers as many as there have been theorists. And yet, there has been no definitive word as yet to decipher this thread, and the quest remains open for further deliberation. Existentialists attempt to find answers to this question by means of a different strategy, as they do not try to make sense of the world around them. Instead, they seek to create a macrocosm of existence in which there is no logic or rational thought at all, but rather chaos and complete surrender to the absurdity of existence itself. Although Albert Camus himself detested being grouped together with the Existentialists, in his works he nevertheless follows this train of thought, and arrives independently at the same conclusions as others before him. In this sense he is at once of them and distinct from them. Since Camus did not write from an Existentialist point of view, the perspective he opines is particularly unique, as the conclusions he draws are not predetermined, but rather he finds his way as he writes, and although the destination he reaches is quite the same, he gropes in the dark rather than following the light.

In his The Plague Camus traces the loss of a sense of identity in the individual, and delineates the various stages through which he slowly but gradually loses touch with his rational and logical side and emptiness begins to creep into his sense of being. The Plagueopens in a town that is quite unremarkable in its appearance, and might be taken as any other place in any other part of the world. The Town of Oran, as it is called, is representative of any typical modern, detached, materialistic city, and the citizens are typified modern people who are more interested in their daily routine industrialized schedules, where they are bound by clocks and time tables and unable to think of anything expect immediate gratification of their expeditious needs. One thing that is remarkable in this context is that Camus paints the entire breadth of the community as a single blur of human appurtenances in which an individual is indistinguishable from anybody else, and the people just simply form a single mass, physical, social as well as cognitive in their cohesion. Thus Camus hints not only at the loss of identity of the modern man, but also the lack of any attempt to arrive at any form of a distinct self. The lack of any coherent identity does not provoke any anxiety, and thus there is no need to alleviate this sense of loss:

The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, “doing their business.” naturally they don’t eschew such simpler pleasures as love-making, sea-bathing, going to the pictures. (Camus 1)

To begin with, this order of things does not qualify a quest for identity, as its absence does not requisite a sense of loss. This lack of identity is so prominent and has been so for so long that people have become habitual to this state of things, and indifference has set in. Camus generalizes this as well, and the narrator says about Oran that “these habits are not peculiar to our town; really all our contemporaries are much the same” (Camus 2).

The loss of identity in the novel begins with the first word itself, as the narrator is nameless and faceless, and is denied an identity of his own. While the narrator gives a description of the events in the town of Oran in a very blunt and objective manner, yet there is enough of the human in him that effaces the narrative with emotions of pity and colours the narrative with a certain warmth. But by not giving him an identity and a persona Camus effectively dehumanizes the narrator, thus creating a void where a human face should have been. It only serves to emphasize his point, as he employs a dehumanized voice to recapitulate a dehumanized tale. Camus extends this lack of identity from the narrator to the language as well, making it inadequate for exact expression. He relates this fact through the character of Grand, who, in the novel, finds that “the least word cost him a terrible effort” (Camus 23). This inefficiency is drawn out to another level as well, and he extends it to literature as well, which is perhaps the highest usage of language. Grand is shown as writing a novel which he thinks would be a great success, but at the same time he is unable to get past the very first sentence, and throughout the novel he keeps on rewriting the first sentence over and over again. This is a glaring defalcation of the very function of language itself, as Grand spends many months to come up with a few words to express himself, but cannot find the right words to say what he means. It is interesting to note that Camus points to the absurdity of composition of literature itself, and Grand's literary endeavours are dismissed as being mere “harmless eccentricities” (Camus 23). Camus portrays this inability as absolute when at the end of the novel Grand burns the manuscript containing the single line which he manages to conjure up, noting that as there is no longer a sense of an individual identity left in the people, there is no longer a need for, and neither is it possible for an individual to express, artistically or otherwise, the thoughts that are imprisoned in his mind.

As the novel progresses, however, strains of humanity springs up in the minds of the people of Oran. Due to the plague that has broken out in the city, the city is isolated from the rest of the world to prevent the spread of infection. Once satisfied with leading empty lives, they are forced out of their reverie, and a period of revelations and epiphanies follows. They are no longer content with the direction their life is taking, and they are forced to take stock of their lives. This sudden disillusionment with their hollow lives leaves them stranded, for the only life they had known is now closed to them. Thus begins for them what in Existentialism terminology is known as Existential angst. There is nothing holding them back anymore, and they are free to do as they please. But with this new found freedom comes the responsibility of leading their lives of their own accord. There is nothing to assist or help them in this journey. There is nothing to show them the way, no light to follow that will lead them out of the darkness. This complete and utter self-reliance, the “sense of being abandoned,” becomes a cause for anxiety, instilling in their hearts a fear of the unknown, but it is one to dispel which nothing can be done (Camus 36). Once the plague has set in, and the town has been isolated, the residents of Oran realize that they are on their own. Nothing from the outside can assist them in their struggle. Their normal everyday life has been disrupted, and changed forever, and all they can do is watch everything crumble into nothingness. This angst slowly turns to depression and despair, as slowly they watch their loved ones die before their eyes, and the life they knew and held so dearly on to is taken away from them. It is in the midst of this chaos, this complete collapse of the very fabric of their life that they must strive to find themselves. For them the search for an identity is synonymous with search for a way in which they could live, and until they could find it, they “drifted rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root themselves in the solid earth of their distress” (Camus 35).

Camus hints at the different sources from which a possible identity can be constructed, but in turn finds each inadequate. He begins with religion, but says that in ordinary circumstances “sea-bathing competes seriously with church-going” (Camus 45). Nevertheless, he opines that men often turn to religion in times of adversity if for nothing else but to find comfort, safety and a sense of belongingness. If not their own identity, at least religion gives them social cohesion and relieves them of responsibility, requiring in turn complete surrender of their individuality. Man turns to religion, says Camus, to alleviate the fear caused by Existential angst, and instead of identity, finds comfort, but only if he believes without questioning, that what has been told to him:

Never more intensely than today had he, Father Paneloux, felt the immanence of divine succor and Christian hope granted to all alike. He hoped against hope that, despite all the horrors of these dark days, despite the groans of men and women in agony, our fellow citizens would offer up to heaven that one prayer which is truly Christian, a prayer of love. And God would see to the rest. (Camus 49)

The final verdict that Camus casts on the role of religion as the saviour of man is evident from the way in which Father Paneloux meets his end, vague and uncertain, there being “against his name the index card recorded: "Doubtful case" (Camus 113). Camus considers religion to be a contradiction in terms, as it itself negates its own existence, and he says that “according to religion, the first half of a man's life is an upgrade; the second goes downhill. On the descending days he has no claim, they may be snatched from him at any moment; thus he can do nothing with them and the best thing, precisely, is to do nothing with them.” (Camus 58).

Throughout the novel Camus takes up the theme of love and friendship as the root whence identity can be sought, but again falls short of hem becoming an answer to the eternal question. The narrator of the novel, Doctor Rieux, loses both his wife and his best friend at the end of the novel, and comes out of it desolate and lost. On hearing about his wife's death, Rieux simply admits that “he'd been expecting it, but it was hard all the same. And he knew, in saying this, that this suffering was nothing new. For many months, and for the last two days, it was the self-same suffering going on and on” (Camus 147). The grief that loss brings with it is nothing new for him, and it merely forms a part of the despair that already engulfs his life.

Death and suicide form a strong part of the narrative of The Plague, and Camus suggestively opines that the only viable solution to the Existentialist problem might well be self-annihilation, and that the only way to explore one's identity is in fact to destroy it altogether. Camus takes a detached view of death, as something distant, and he depicts it as from the eyes of one perched far above the horizon of humanity, viewing it as something abstract, something to be considered as though from the perspective of a removed observer:

But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has served in a war, one hardly knows what a dead man is, after a while. And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. The doctor remembered the plague at Constantinople that, according to Procopius, caused ten thousand deaths in a single day. Ten thousand dead made about five times the audience in a biggish cinema. Yes, that was how it should be done. You should collect the people at the exits of five picture-houses, you should lead them to a city square and make them die in heaps if you wanted to get a clear notion of what it means. Then at least you could add some familiar faces to the anonymous mass. (Camus 19)

Through the metaphor of the plague, death forms the very undercurrent on which the narration moves forward. Progression of the plague is measured by the number of deaths in a single day. Death becomes the yardstick on which movement is charted out. Death, as it were, becomes one with space and time, bound together by fetters of uncertainty. Death serves many purposes in Camus' perspective on the search for identity. Firstly, death rounds off the plot of life, in that it brings life to its conclusion. It is only when faced with the question of mortality that an individual will truly realize the purpose and meaning of life, as when one is faced with death it is only then that one can break free from the bonds of trifle commonalities. As under ordinary circumstances, even to the old and infirm, death seems a distant event, it is ignored as something to be considered at a later time, and one lives under the illusion that one will live forever. Death does not enter one's perspective at all. It remains an afterthought at best, as Camus explains:

Also, no one in the town had any idea of the average weekly death-rate in ordinary times. The population of the town was about two hundred thousand. There was no knowing if the present death-rate were really so abnormal. This is, in fact, the kind of statistics that nobody ever troubles much about, notwithstanding that its interest is obvious. The public lacked, in short, standards of comparison. (Camus 38)

Towards the end of the novel, death is no longer an extraordinary event, and with hundreds of people dying every day, people become accustomed to the fatal atmosphere. Death is freed from the terror that it is usually associated with. By associating it with the plague, Camus paints death as release from pain and suffering, and thus portrays death in a positive light, seeking for it not only its acceptance but also its recommendation, for death brings much needed relief from distress. Another consideration in this context is death’s universal nature, as Camus says, of there being no discrimination whatsoever among the victims that death takes, which he calls as “the inerrable equality of death ” (Camus 115). He hints at a kind of merged identity, a common fate, a destiny beyond everything else, in death there being a liberation from the restraints of mass produced life.

Delving deeper into latent implications of the text on an allegorical plane, interpretations can be made of the plague being used as a metaphor, and a literary device through which Camus has portrayed the dehumanization of the human condition. Says Barbara Fass Leavy, “The Plague is often read as an allegory, either of World War II and the French resistance to the Nazis, or of the struggle against arbitrary evil in a philosophically meaningless world” (186). The very detachment of the human condition is termed as the plague, the infirmity that can only have fatal results. No one is spared, and although a few men try to salvage the human soul from its eventual and inevitable disintegration, such attempts are feeble, and no amount of humanism or coercion of affinities as religion and community can help. Camus is not however anti humanist, and he says that the plague that came upon the people was neither requisitioned nor desired. It was an imposition, and in no way the direct consequence of the people. But once the affliction had taken place, the people who were previously occupied with materialistic premonitions, were not prepared for its onslaught, and thus fell prey to its evil. Camus puts forward the point that since the dehumanization by its very nature blurs the boundaries between individual differences, the very quest for identity is an absurd preposition, and even if one embarks on such a journey, it will not get on anywhere, since because there is no place to start, no destination exists as well:

However, whenever opportunity arose, Rambert had tackled each of them and pleaded his cause. The gist of his argument was always the same: that he was a stranger to our town and, that being so, his case deserved special consideration. Mostly the men he talked to conceded this point readily enough. But usually they added that a good number of other people were in a like case, and thus his position was not so exceptional as he seemed to suppose. (Camus 52)

For the rectification of this divestment of identity, there are attempts to break free of this servitude to dissemblance, but, adds Camus, these attempts either fail outright, or the individual gets overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the task at hand and gives up sooner or later. In the novel, Rambert in the beginning of the predicament vows that “leave this town [he] shall,” but with time this proclamation loses its strength. By the end of the plot he is a completely changed man, and he can no longer return to being the man he was before. The plague has changed him completely, and even if he manages to fabricate an improvised identity, it would never be the same as he was before:

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 had forced on him a detachment which, try as he might, he couldn't think away, and which like a formless fear haunted his mind. (Camus 143)

An existence without an identity is like an exile, which, says Camus, “that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire” (34). This exile finally ends with the plague itself, but, as the narrator enunciates at the culmination of the novel, the plague leaves more victims than survivors, and even those who managed to survive do not manage to find themselves, and their new lives are merely empty hollow shells of what they had been before.

Albert Camus’ The Plague is an outstanding implementation of Existential principles in a literary form, and in the novel Camus describes the loss of identity in modern society, and the consequences of this affliction on the human condition. In accordance with Existentialist thought, Camus declares the quest for identity as destined to be inconsequential, and successful culmination of which, if any at all can only be found in annihilation of the self, be it physical, moral, or social, and in some cases, brought upon by man himself, be it an act of desperation or simply exasperation at the enormity of the task involved.



Works Cited

Aronson, Ronald. Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2004. Print.

Bronner, Stephen Eric. Camus: Portrait of a Moralist. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2009. Print.

Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Penguin, 1960. Print.

Cruickshank, John. Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt. New York: Sussex UP,  1960. Print.

Leavy, Barbara Fass. To Blight with Plague: Studies in a Literary Theme. New York: New York UP, 1993. Print.