In his novel, The Plague, Albert Camus allows the characters to illustrate the revolt motif he has in mind. Let’s look at Cottard.
We are introduced to Cottard rather early in the novel. Cottard is a little con-man, perhaps on the lam, for whom the epidemic gives a new lease on life. He is the one character in the book who overtly steps over to the side of the plague and not the people. The improvement in Cottard’s emotional health is directly proportional to the general deterioration of the physical well-being of the townspeople. “This town is going to be in an unholy mess by the looks of things!” he observes happily.
He will not join the sanitary squads: “It’s not my job and what’s more, the plague suits me quite well and I see no reason why I should bother about trying to stop it.”In the end, as the plague winds down,
Cottard is unable to readjust to the new normal, and finally convinced that the declining death statistics do indeed indicate that pestilence is passing, Cottard goes completely berserk — which results in his death.
Cottard is a collaborator, and like all collaborators, including those in France during the Nazi occupation, he was not ready to adjust when happiness broke into the new reality. There is no philosophy of revolt in Cottard. On the contrary, he forms an unsteady alliance with the absurd — the word we hear today about the COVID-19 experience is “unreal” — unaware that by the very nature of things, the “unreal” quality of life always has the upper hand and in the end destroys the person who thinks he can play its game.
Camus argues that one cannot come to grips with the absurd. A parley is not possible. The virus enslaves people. One has two options: Either resign and give up, or enter a struggle against the absurd and thereby begin to live authentically in a universe that is meaningless. Let’s look at another character.
Here’s a fellow who — honestly — is a nobody. Camus describes him as one possessing all the attributes of insignificance. His goal is to be a writer — to express himself. He’s working on a novel which never gets past the first sentence which is he constantly revising!
The arrival of the plague, however, changes everything for Joseph Grand. For the first time, he begins to live authentically. He takes up the fight against the plague. He keeps statistics on the progress of the mortality rate and becomes an inspiration for those on the sanitary squads who see him as a true here. But Grand says, “Why it’s not difficult! Plague is here and we’ve got to take a stand, that’s obvious!”
He catches the disease, but he survives. Having yearned to express himself, he finds that he is doing precisely that and in a way he’d never done before. In taking up the struggle against the plague, Grand attached meaning and significance to his life that had hitherto been missing.
I’m going to look at two more characters, and devote a post to each: Father Paneloux and Dr. Bernard Reiux and Jean Tarrou. Okay that’s three! So Paneloux in Part 4, and Rieux and Tarrou in Part 5, and some concluding comments in Part 6.
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