Camus’ The Plague: Coronavirus Quotes
In recent weeks, sales of Albert Camus’ 1948 novel The Plague have taken off, and it’s no wonder the book is attracting renewed attention outside of high school and college literature courses. Articles comparing the novel to our current pandemic and reassessing its lessons have appeared again and again in recent weeks.
In case you don’t have time to read this stunning novel just now—after all, we have news to follow, friends to Zoom with, children to teach, work to keep up with, prayers to say, or jobs to perform in fear and service—KtB would like to offer these several “greatest hits” that get at some of the similarities.
The quotes carry some of the main messages Camus wished to impart, and they also reveal the uncanny way his metaphorical plague mirrors the trajectory and emotional impact of the coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic.
Published in 1948, Camus’s novel The Plague was intended as a metaphor for the recently-ended Nazi occupation of France during World War II. The book itself takes place in a fictional Algerian city called Oran, which suffers a horrific outbreak of bubonic plague. While writing the book, Camus conducted extensive research into epidemics and the courses they take. And, as I’ve written previously in these pages the plague works so well as a metaphor for dangerous times, such as the world we entered after the election of 2016.
I’ve turned to most of these quotes time and time again over the years, but perhaps never more relevantly as now. Really, they’re just a taste of what the book has to say. For more, you’ll have to read the book itself. You won’t regret it.
1. On living in complacency before a plague:
“Certainly nothing is commoner nowadays than to see people working from morn to night and then proceeding to fritter away at card-tables, in cafés and in small talk what time is left for living. [. . .] Really, all that was to be conveyed was the banality of the town’s appearance and life in it.” (4-5)*
2. On the way plague reveals heretofore hidden aspects of society and its people:
“It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humors; thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails. You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core” (16)
3. On the how plague catches a citizenry off guard:
“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” (36-7)
4. On how quarantine causes mass canceling of plans:
“How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views? They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” (37)
5. On the people in charge denying that action needs to happen:
“People in town are getting nervous, that’s a fact,’ Dr. Richard admitted. ‘And of course all sorts of wild rumors are going around. The Prefect said to me, ‘Take prompt action if you like, but don’t attract attention.’ He personally is convinced that it’s a false alarm.’” (47)
6. On the sense of isolation that quarantine creates:
“Thus each of us had to be content to lie only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.” (75)
7. On the way plague and quarantine seep into every aspect of life:
“At first the fact of being cut of from the outside world was accepted with a more or less good grace, much as people would have put up with any other temporary inconvenience that interfered with only a few of their habits. But, now they had abruptly become aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration under that blue dome of sky already beginning to sizzle in the first of summer, they had a vision that their whole lives were threatened by the present turn of events.” (100)
8. On the difficulties of social and physical separation and distancing:
“And he knew, also, what the old man was thinking as his tears flowed, and he, Rieux, thought it too: that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.” (261)
9: On the efforts of doctors and medical staff:
“Though working constantly at high pressure, the doctors and their helpers were not forced to contemplate still greater efforts. All they had to do was to carry on automatically, so to speak, their all but superhuman task.” (236)
10: On microbes as metaphor more than literal truth, but then again, maybe not . . . :
“‘I know positively [. . .] that each of us has plague within him, and no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep an endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe.” (253)
11. On plague, pandemic, and constant vigilance:
“‘All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is a product of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous will power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses.’” (253)
12: On what the world might look like after plague:
“Indeed, one’s chief impression was that the epidemic had called a retreat after reaching all its objectives; it had, so to speak, achieved its purpose. Nevertheless, it seemed as if nothing had changed in the town. Silent as ever by day, the streets filled up at nightfall with the usual crowds of people, now wearing overcoats and scarves. Cafés and picture houses did as much business as before.” (271)
13: On the grief and pain that someone you know and care for might die:
“This human form, his friend’s, lacerated by the spear-thrusts of the plague, consumed by searing, superhuman fires, buffeted from all the raging winds of heaven, was foundering under his eyes in the dark flood of the pestilence, and he could do nothing to avert the wreck.” (289)
14. On the question of finding meaning in such horror:
“But what had he, Rieux, won? No more than the experience of having known plague and remembering it, of having known friendship and remembering it, of knowing affection and being destined one day to remember it. So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match.” (291)
15. On the danger and value of love in the face of epidemic:
“They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for, and sometimes attain, it is human love.” (300)
16. On the question of meaning, once more so as not to miss the point:
“But for those others who aspired beyond and above the human individual toward something they could not even imagine, there had been no answer. [. . .] It was only right that those whose desires are limited to man and his humble yet formidable love should enter, if only now and then, into their reward.” (300-301)
17. On how we are meant to heal the world, no matter whether the plague is a metaphor or a microbe:
“None the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” (308)
Stay safe. Stay healthy. Do all you can to fight plague where you find it, and don’t forget to love.
*All quotes are from Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage Books, , 1948).
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.