The early (now fading) pandemic popularity of Albert Camus’ The Plague

by Bob Schwartz

In the early days of the pandemic—spring of 2020—Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague became a bestseller. Camus is highly regarded as novelist and essayist (he won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature), so it was natural that his fiction about bubonic plague in the French town of Oran would gain so much attention.

That popularity and attention has faded. In the novel, the plague lasts for one year. In America and the world, the plague is finishing its second year. If you read comments from 2020, people were anticipating the end and what lessons we might learn as covid was in our rear view mirror. In many quarters, sober reflection has given way to either resignation or delusion.

Camus deftly pictures the stages of plague mentality, as other analysts have outlined the stages of grief. He offers characters that adopt different roles, some based on their nature, some developed to meet the moment as best they can. The novel has long been deeply mined. Some find it a metaphor for the ways we deal with the onslaught of sudden mass disease and death. Others see a metaphor for how the French handled the then-just-ended plague of Nazi occupation, some collaborating, some shrugging it off as the way things are, some like Camus actively resisting.  

Now that the early days of our plague have evolved to these latter days, it is still worth reading The Plague. Because in describing the darkness, it is optimistic. Along with those who exploit the plague, or offer metaphysical solace, or give up and hope for the best, there are those who are compelled to help get the town through the worst days, however long those worst days last. To resist.

Here is a message from Camus in his Nobel acceptance speech:

Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death. In a world threatened by disintegration, in which our grand inquisitors run the risk of establishing forever the kingdom of death, it knows that it should, in an insane race against the clock, restore among the nations a peace that is not servitude, reconcile anew labour and culture, and remake with all men the Ark of the Covenant. It is not certain that this generation will ever be able to accomplish this immense task, but already it is rising everywhere in the world to the double challenge of truth and liberty and, if necessary, knows how to die for it without hate. Wherever it is found, it deserves to be saluted and encouraged, particularly where it is sacrificing itself.

Albert Camus