August 2002

Jen Crispin

hundred books

The Plague by Albert Camus

To be perfectly honest, I was more that prepared to dislike The Plague -- I was actually relishing the idea of hating it. Let's just say that my first encounter with Camus, The Stranger, did not go well. That book was one of the most annoying and frustrating reading experiences of my young life, second only to Ethan Frome, the book I love most to hate. But based on the amount of respect given to Camus by friends whose opinions in books I usually trust, I knew I had to give him a second chance. It was indeed possible that The Stranger was an incredibly interesting book, and that there was only something about my state of mind at the time that kept me from appreciating its subtle nuances. As much as I wanted to believe that, the thought of picking up and reading it again filled me with a sick sense of dread. So I chose an alternate route: I read The Plague, instead.

From the beginning, I sat in a state of anticipatory judgement of the book. I didn't want to like Camus. And the beginning of the book just did not win me over. Having both seen and read Stephen King's The Stand, and read entirely too many brutal and thorough books on the AIDS epidemic, it was highly unlikely that any description Camus might give of the plague would shock or move me much in comparison. As his book is set in relatively modern times, there was also not the shock of general filth and sewage running in the streets that might have been present in other accounts of plague.

If shock or horror would not draw me into the book, I didn't anticipate compassion to do so either. As in The Stranger, the characters of The Plague are not an emotive bunch. The doctor, Rieux, watches hundreds die every day and is separated from his wife for the duration of the plague -- he grinds on. His closest friend, Tarrou, keeps a detailed journal comprised entirely of observations of other people, the only personal details he records come very near the end of the plague, when he is presumably too exhausted to censor himself. "Well," one might say, "those are men, those were different times, you can't expect men to express their emotions, what about the women?" What about the women? What an excellent question! The only women in the book are the exiled wives from whom, conveniently, nothing can be heard, and Rieux's mother, who is even less emotive than Rieux himself.

I might have set the book aside entirely had it not been assigned for me to read for the 100 books list, and for that I am grateful. Because after plowing doggedly through the first three parts of the novel, it was in the fourth that the book finally set its hooks into my chest. In a brief moment of respite, Tarrou and Rieux sit on a terrace overlooking the town, and Tarrou tells Rieux how he came to be the man that he is. I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, so I will just say that Tarrou finally gave me something to identify with and a reason to be involved in the book. His struggle as an athiest pacifist riveted me, and from that point on I could hardly bear to put the book down. Unfortunately, there was little left to the book after that point, but it was enough. I was converted. I could finally agree with all of those who consider Camus to be a great author.

But will I ever give The Stranger another try? Perhaps in a few more years....