The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Moralist Camus - The Plague
Kem Stone - July 2006
The ideas of struggling against evil and a shared destiny with all men are expressed most explicitly in The Rebel,
but years earlier Camus had used these themes for his novel,
The Plague.  Written shortly after the end of the
second world war, the novel is essentially an allegory for the situation in France and other parts of Europe during
the time of the German occupation.  Using the Algerian town of Oran as his setting, Camus reduces this immense
tragedy down to artistically manageable proportions, isolating the town from the rest of the world when the gates
are closed after the discovery of an outbreak of bubonic plague.  Through a relatively small cast of characters,
including Dr. Bernard Rieux who does his best to fight the plague throughout the long tragedy, and Jean Tarrou, a
stranger to the town of Oran who nevertheless sacrifices everything in the struggle against the disease, Camus
expresses his ideas of steadfastness against violence and commitment to the plight of others with a level of moral
insight that surpasses his earlier work.  “
The Myth of Sisyphus was concerned with the problem of suicide.  In
The Plague Camus substitutes this problem for that of a strange form of martyrdom, a kind of religion of
happiness through atheistic sanctity” (Murchland,
CCE, 62).

The Plague is a story told in five parts.  The first part introduces the character of Dr. Rieux, as he and his fellow
townspeople deal with a sudden infestation of dead rats, which he soon realises is due to an outbreak of plague.  
Part II begins with the closing off of the town of Oran, blocking parted comrades from each other and imprisoning
those inside.  One such victim is the journalist Rambert, who is prevented from returning to his wife in France.  
The town priest, Father Paneloux, delivers a sermon preaching that the plague is an instrument of divine justice.  
Jean Tarrou, a visitor to Oran, decides to start a sanitation squad in an effort to help curb the spread of the
disease.  Part III merely describes the height of the plague’s devastation, including the burial rituals which slowly
diminish in formality until bodies are merely heaped upon one another in ditches.  The longest and most dramatic
section of the novel, Part IV, begins with Rambert’s attempts to escape and return to his wife, though after
repeated failures he eventually decides to stay and help.  Father Paneloux, after witnessing the death of a child
infected by plague, delivers another sermon, much more sympathetic than the first.  The main concepts behind
Camus’ moral thinking at the time find their expression through Tarrou, who explains his aspiration “to become a
saint without God” to Rieux.  In the final section, Tarrou is claimed as one of the plague’s last victims.  When the
infestation is over, the rats return, the town is reopened, Rambert is reunited with his wife, and Rieux reveals that
he is the narrator.

That the narrator keeps his identity secret until the end is a deliberate move on Camus’ part to give the story a
more universal quality—to make it about the events themselves rather than the individual experiences of a
particular character.  But although written in the third person, it is essentially a first-person narrative, with Rieux’s
feelings constantly finding their expression throughout.

    The pages written in chronicle style inform us of the events indirectly by means of the narrator’s
    reflections about them, rather than directly.  They give an impression of material distance: the
    narrator interposes himself between us and the events, and judges them after they have happened;
    also of spiritual distance: the plot seems to take on perspective, achieving a symbolical character.  
    (Picon, CCE, 147)

Through the use of symbolism and the interactions of his characters, Camus expresses a simple yet powerful moral
vision that echoes his feelings in
Letters to a German Friend and foreshadows his message in The Rebel.


Christianity

One of Camus’ most forceful criticisms of Christianity is expressed in The Plague, through the character of Father
Paneloux.  In his early years, Camus had been interested in the work of Saint Augustine; his graduate thesis had
been entitled
Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, in which he critically examines the ideas of the Saint
Augustine as well as Plotinus and the Gnostics (Kamber, 14).  The Augustinian ideas of salvation and grace had
been particularly troubling for Camus, specifically the damnation of unbaptized children.  Camus felt—and he
maintains this feeling throughout his career—that God could not or
should not allow such an unjust scheme, in
which so few are saved while the rest are damned, including innocent children.   “If God denies grace to most of
humanity, then there is a desperate need to minister—without God’s help—to the damned” (Kamber, 26).

When the plague breaks out in Oran, Father Paneloux is asked to deliver a sermon.  He gives a patently
Augustinian interpretation of the events, suggesting to the anxious citizens that the plague is a punishment from God
which they deserve.

    If today the plague is in your midst, that is because the hour has struck for taking thought.  The just
    man need have no fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble.  For plague is the flail of God
    and the world His threshing-floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is
    separated from the chaff.  There will be more chaff than wheat, few chosen of the many called….For
    a long while God gazed down on this town with eyes of compassion; but He grew weary of waiting,
    His eternal hope was too long deferred, and now He has turned His face away from us.  And so,
    God’s light withdrawn, we walk in darkness, in the thick darkness of this plague.  (Camus, Plague,
    87)

That Camus finds such an attitude repugnant is not difficult to discern within the pages of
The Plague, as distaste
for the sermon is expressed on more than one occasion by Rieux and his companions.

Later in the novel, however, Father Paneloux bears witness to an event that shakes his faith.  The magistrate’s
young boy, sick with plague, is administered a vaccine in a last desperate effort to save his life.  The child
convulses violently, wails in pain for a long time, and finally dies.  Angry with the dreadful circumstance, Rieux tries
to leave the room but is stopped by Paneloux.  Swinging around, Rieux exclaims, “Ah! That child, anyhow, was
innocent, and you know it as well as I do!” (Camus,
Plague, 196).  Here we have a dramatic presentation of the
problem of evil—if the plague is supposed to be God’s way of punishing the guilty, why are the innocent not
spared?  If God is infinitely good, how could he allow such a thing to happen?  Paneloux’s reply is that he does
not understand, but perhaps we should love what we do not understand.  Rieux’s reply is cold and concise: “No,
Father.  I’ve a very different idea of love.  And until my dying I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which
children are put to torture” (Camus,
Plague, 196).  Rieux’s attitude is that of the metaphysical rebel, who places
the responsibility for the suffering of the world on God’s shoulders and judges him accordingly.

But Paneloux remains steadfast in his resolve to accept the apparent cruelty, and trusts that God has a good
reason for everything that happens.  Shortly after the incident, he delivers another sermon trying to reconcile the
horrors of the plague with his faith in God’s perfection.

    There was no doubt as to the existence of good and evil and, as a rule, it was easy to see the
    difference between them.  The difficulty began when we looked into the nature of evil, and among
    things evil he included human suffering.  Thus we had apparently needful pain, and apparently
    needless pain; we had Don Juan cast into hell, and a child’s death.  For while it is right that a libertine
    should be struck down, we see no reason for a child’s suffering.  And, truth to tell, nothing was more
    important on earth than a child’s suffering, the horror it inspires in us, and the reasons we must find to
    account for it….he might easily have assured them that the child’s sufferings would be compensated
    for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him.  But how could he give that assurance when, to tell the truth,
    he knew nothing about it?  For who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for
    a single moment’s human suffering?  (Camus, Plague, 201)

Paneloux issues a kind of spiritual ultimatum.  He acknowledges that we cannot possibly understand the reasons
for a child’s suffering but if we can not accept that there
is a reason, we cannot accept God.  “In other words, one
must have faith that everything is an expression of God’s love or give up trying to be a Christian” (Kamber, 77).  
For those who share Camus’ sentiments, the obvious reaction would be to give up Christianity, and accept what
follows.  When Paneloux contracts a mysterious disease (not necessarily plague) shortly after his sermon and dies
because he refuses to see a doctor, it serves as a warning against relying on faith in matters of life and death.

But Camus does not discount the seriousness of losing faith.  The advantages of having faith are directly expressed
in Paneloux’s sermon: “the love of God is a hard love.  It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human
personality.  And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them,
since we cannot understand them, and we can only make God’s will ours” (Camus,
Plague, 205).  If we refuse to
believe in God, we are left with an absurd world in which nothing has a purpose.  The incomprehensibility of a
child’s torture is replaced by its meaningless, and most would find it easier to handle suffering if there is a reason
that simply surpasses our understanding than if there is no reason or justification whatsoever.

However, Camus does not want to go so far as to endorse the belief in God simply as a way of handling life’s
difficulties.  Indeed if everyone merely accepted all suffering as a part of the divine plan, what reason would we
have to try to diminish that suffering?  This is the attitude expressed by Rieux when Tarrou asks him what reasons
he has to struggle against the plague.  Rieux explains that he does not know—he does not do it out of pride nor
out of any desire for a reward—but he merely sees that there are sick people and he is inclined to defend them.  
When asked against whom he is defending them, Rieux again replies that he does not know, but that he has seen
enough death to make him outraged at the entire scheme of things.  Again we have the elements of metaphysical
rebellion, expressed with great force in Rieux’s comment, “since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’
t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising
our eyes toward the heavens where He sits in silence?” (Camus,
Plague, 117)

The message is clear: if we have absolute faith in the perfection of God, we must believe that evil has a purpose
and we therefore have no reason to struggle against it.  But if we struggle against evil for no reason other than our
own desire to eliminate it, we have a chance of success.  The idea that even if God exists he would rather we act
as though he doesn’t is a very powerful idea, and another key to reconciling the ideas of Camus with theism.  
Whether we believe that God does not exist or that he exists but is unknowable, we should take matters into our
own hands and improve the plight of the world rather than rely on his infinite grace to take care of everything for
us.


Absurdity

The idea of the absurd has much more of an abstract quality in The Plague than in Camus’ earlier work, but as
always it is an ever-present theme.  The plague itself can be read as a metaphor for absurdity, or at least as the
type of devastating circumstance—such as a war—that brings people face to face with the absurd.  When the
plague initially breaks out, Rieux ponders how everyone was caught off guard by its appearance simply because it
is not a normal part of the human experience.

    In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words
    they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.  A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s
    measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will
    pass away.  But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who
    pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.  Our
    townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought
    that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.  
    They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views.  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.  (Camus, Plague, 34)

Like Caligula, the plague teaches its victims of life’s absurdity by destroying freedom and killing at random.  The
universal death sentence that is the human condition is merely accentuated and made more immediate by the
plague.

The destruction of freedom is an equally important element of the absurd condition forced upon the citizens of
Oran.  Like the French citizens in occupied Germany, they found their possibilities shrink from nearly limitless to
virtually nonexistent, and eventually all of their separate destinies converge into one.  Camus uses the image of the
sea to symbolise freedom:

    In the early weeks, the sea continues to have a real existence for them since it serves as a palpable
    reminder of a link with that outside world with which they are confident of resuming contact in the
    near future.  But, as the plague established itself in all its terrifying permanence, the sea recedes from
    minds that no longer dare to dwell on freedom and are simply concerned to survive within the
    imprisoning walls of the town.  As a symbol of freedom, the sea diminishes in reality as the action of
    the novel proceeds (John, CCE, 141).

As war and tyranny grow stronger, freedom grows weaker.  In the novel, it is plague that eventually engulfs the
people and reduces the town from a free society into something more closely resembling a Nazi death camp.  “No
longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.  
Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the cross-currents of revolt and fear
set up by these” (Camus,
Plague, 151).

But although the collective destiny of the people is one of suffering and death, the positive side is that the destiny
is
shared by them all.  Rather than face absurdity on their own, the people stand together as victims.  The feeling of
exile is difficult to bear, but is a feeling common to them all.  Once the plague finally subsides, Rieux considers this
prevalent emotion and its counter-part, the desire for a reunion.

    For the first time Rieux found that he could give a name to the family likeness that for several months
    he had detected in the faces in the streets.  He had only to look around him now.  At the end of the
    plague, with its misery and privations, these men and women had come to wear the aspect of the
    part they had been playing for so long, that part of emigrants whose faces first, and now their
    clothes, told of long banishment from a distant homeland.….Most of them had longed intensely for
    an absent one, for the warmth of a body, for love, or merely for a life that habit had endeared.  
    Some, often without knowing it, suffered from being deprived of the company of friends and from
    their inability to get in touch with them through the usual channels of friendship—letters, trains, and
    boats.  Others, fewer these—Tarrou may have been one of them—had desired reunion with
    something they couldn’t have defined, but which seemed to them the only desirable thing on earth.  
    For want of a better name, they sometimes called it peace.  (Camus, Plague, 269)

When a person is forced to confront the absurd, there are bound to be difficulties.  But when forced to confront
the true horrors of the world on a large scale with many other people, a feeling of solidarity is bound to devleop,
and out of the ashes will rise the values needed to face the absurd with assurance.


Values

The type of exile that Rieux is thinking of when he refers to Tarrou is the self-imposed exile of a man dedicated to
a moral life.  A great deal of Camus’ ideas on morality at the time are expressed through the character of Tarrou,
most notably during a very revealing conversation he has with Rieux towards the end of the novel.  Tarrou speaks
of his childhood; his father having been a prosecutor, the young Tarrou had witnessed a man sentenced to be
executed, and felt such a great sympathy for the man that he resolved always to take the side of the victim.

    Pending that release, I know I have no place in the world of today; once I’d definitely refused to kill,
    I doomed myself to an exile that can never end.  I leave it to others to make history.  I know, too,
    that I’m not qualified to pass judgment on those others.  There’s something lacking in my mental
    make-up, and its lack prevents me from being a rational murderer.  So it’s a deficiency, not a
    superiority.  But as things are, I’m willing to be as I am; I’ve learned modesty.  All I maintain is that
    on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to
    join forces with the pestilences.  That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’
    s simple, but I know it’s true.  You see, I’d heard such quantities of arguments, which very nearly
    turned my head, and turned other people’s heads enough to make them approve of murder; and I’d
    come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language.  So I
    resolved always to speak out—and to act—quite clearly, as this was the only way of setting myself
    on the right track.  (Camus, Plague, 229)

In this speech we see the heart of Camus’ message from his entire moralist period: that there are murderors and
there are victims, and to do the right thing we must side with the victims.  Just like in
The Rebel, Camus cautions
us against arguments that justify murder, and encourages the use of simple, clear-cut language, lest our words be
twisted and used to promote atrocities.

Another element of the kind of morality Camus is promoting in
The Plague is the right to pursue happiness.  This
can be seen most clearly in Rieux’s reaction to the character of Rambert, a journalist who has the misfortune of
being caught in Oran when the plague breaks out and the gates are closed.  Separated from his wife, Rambert
pleads with Rieux to help him escape and return to her.  At first, Rieux is somewhat put off by the request and tells
him that there is nothing he can do, but as time goes on he becomes more and more sympathetic.  At one point,
Rieux warns Rambert that the magistrate has his eye on him, and that he’d better hurry up with his plans to
escape.  Rambert thanks him, then asks him why Rieux has not tried to prevent him from leaving.

    Rieux shook his head with his usual deliberateness.  It was none of his business, he said.  Rambert
    had elected for happiness, and he, Rieux, had no argument to put up against him.  Personally he felt
    incapable of deciding which was the right course and which the wrong in such a case as Rambert’s.  
    (Camus, Plague, 182)

Rieux is conflicted between his opinion that everyone in the town should be doing their part to help, and his
sympathy for Rambert who is caught in a bad situation.  When Rambert asks why he had bothered to give him the
warning, Rieux replies, “Perhaps because I, too, would like to do my bit for happiness” (Camus,
Plague, 182).

Camus’ message is certainly a simple one, which has lead some to argue that it is actually too simple to help.  
What does Camus actually mean when he refers to happiness?  Is happiness merely the absence of suffering, or is
there something more?

    To Camus, who started with a total and unqualified demand it now seems to be enough that, in the
    long run, suffering and injustice be spared man, and that man’s right to achieve happiness be
    respected.  Does this not seem a rather modest request?….But it seems to me that Camus never
    gives anything but a negative definition of happiness.  If happiness consists merely in escaping from
    the plague, this cannot be enough.  We want happiness to be the possibility of reaching something
    outside the realm of the plague, we want to find in it a use and justification of our freedom.  That one
    must fight against the plagues that enslave man: this is the sole conclusion which, according to Albert
    Camus, is not open to doubt.  But it can only be the first principle of morality; the essential thing we
    must discover is what we should do with the liberty rescued from plagues.  (Chiaromonte, CCE, 15)

Is this a fair criticism?  Perhaps it would be if Camus had purported to offer a complete ethical system that could
provide guidelines for making any moral decision.  But the only guidelines he offers are to promote rather than
prevent suffering, and the only support he gives for this sentiment in
The Plague is emotional rather than
philosophical.  Camus is content to be modest with regard to his ethical prescriptions, leaving the question of what
to do with our freedom up to us.

Another criticism levelled against Camus is that his message can simply be reduced to “heroism”.  Tarrou by all
outward appearances aspires to be a hero, to “become a saint without God” and sacrifices himself for the benefit
of others.  To some it would seem that Camus is merely exalting heroism rather than providing any real moral
insight, but a close reading of the text suggests otherwise.

    The Tarrou side of Camus, in truth the temptation of heroism, is apparent in Camus’s tendency to
    refuse emotion, in the kind of inflexibility with which he comes to grips with fate and which is often
    reflected in stiffness in his style, in his constant search from the concise phrase.  ‘What interest me,’
    says Tarrou with simplicity, ‘is to know how one becomes a saint.’  Evidently, Camus, too, is
    interested.  But in his moments of weakness, when the demands he makes upon himself grow weak,
    Rieux, who, after all, is the narrator of the book and who survives whereas Tarrou dies, answers his
    friend, his alter ego: ‘I have no taste, I believe, for heroism and sainthood.  What interests me is to
    be a man.’  (Doubrovsky, CCE, 76)

Camus may admire the quality of heroism, but his message is not simply that everyone ought to aspire to be a hero
or martyr.  It is enough merely to be a good person, to restrain oneself from doing harm, and when harm is forced
upon one (as the plague is forced upon the citizens of Oran) to do one’s best to fight it.

Struggling against evil is not merely for heroes; it should be expected of all men.  Camus expresses this sentiment
through Rieux when he describes the work of the sanitation squads:

    Doubtless today many of our fellow citizens are apt to yield to the temptation of exaggerating the
    services they rendered.  But the narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to
    praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse
    side of human nature.  For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while
    callousness and apathy are the general rule.  The narrator does not share that view.  The evil that is in
    the world always comes out of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as
    malevolence, if they lack understanding.  (Camus, Plague, 120)

Here again we see an idea that will be developed further in
The Rebel, namely how evil usually results from
ignorance and misunderstanding rather than any real wickedness on the part of human beings, whom Camus sees
as essentially good.

If evil springs from ignorance, good—in much the same respect—comes through understanding.  The value of
solidarity that Camus preaches in
The Rebel can also be found in The Plague as Rieux reflects on the shared
experiences he has had with his fellow citizens.  At the end of the novel when he reveals his identity as the
narrator, he explains his efforts to restrain himself from making the story too personal.

    All the same, following the dictates of his heart, he has deliberately taken the victim’s side and tried
    to share with his fellow citizens the only certitudes they had in common—love, exile, and suffering.  
    Thus he can truly say there was not one of their anxieties in which he did not share, no predicament
    of theirs that was not his.  (Camus, Plague, 272)

In his absurdist phase, Camus had argued that the intrinsic value of life is enough to make it worth living.  But in a
time of struggle, as Camus had experienced in World War II, life itself is no longer enough.  The value arises from
the revolt against death as described in
The Rebel and through the shared struggle as illustrated in The Plague.  
“To be a man condemned, with and among other men likewise condemned: therein lies our task.  For Camus, this
is the province of ethics—of the
we engaged in a desperate venture, beneath a narrow sky darkened by the
plague” (Bespaloff,
CCE, 100).

The final message of
The Plague is Camus’ appeal to those of us living in times of peace, in which the value of
solidarity and standing together with a common cause is not so readily attainable.  It is our duty to remember that
peaceful times cannot endure forever, and to be ready to stand up and struggle for what is right should violent
times ever again be forced upon us.

    And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy
    is always imperilled.  He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from
    books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years
    and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and
    bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men,
    it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.  (Camus, Plague, 278)

As Rieux reflects earlier in the novel, war and plague are not a regular part of the human experience, yet the
tendency toward ignorance and violence are ever-present within every mind.  Our moral duty is primarily to
struggle against evil when it arises, but when we have no great evil to fight we must keep
ourselves in check,
remaining ever vigilant against the darker side of our natures by which we are constantly threatened.