[6 minute read]
In his novel, The Plague, Albert Camus allows the characters to illustrate the revolt motif he has in mind. We have already considered the townspeople as a whole, Cottard, Joseph Grand and Pere Paneloux. Now let’s turn to Dr. Bernard Rieux and Jean Tarrou.
Dr. Rieux, the central character and narrator of the book, did not share the theological concerns of Father Paneloux. He was interested, not in heroism or holiness, but in discovering how to be a man.
Rieux does not believe in God and is somewhat impatient with the idea of whether or not there is a God. The important matter is to join in the fight against evil in the world and then one is really on the right track.
After all, he is a doctor. “Salvation is much too big a word for me,” he said. “I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with a man’s health, and for me his health comes first.” It was this sort of purposefulness that kept Dr. Rieux going in the midst of the plague, despite its length and ferocity. He had a job to do. For him there was no element of risk. There came a time in history, he felt, when a man must dare to say that two plus two equals four even if saying so meant death. His only certitude is that he is at war against Creation and that there are sick people and that they need curing.
When Dr. Rieux is asked what has brought him to these conclusions, he replies quickly with one word: “Suffering.”
The suffering of a child is a crucial scene in The Plague. The problem of evil is narrowed to the case of one child, Jacques Othon, about whose bedside are gathering Dr. Rieux, Tarrou and Father Paneloux. The death of a child from the plague would have been tragedy enough, but when given an untested anti-plague serum, the boy is thereby given strength, but only to suffer, not survive. Rieux responds to the lad’s suffering by stating the emotive feeling we find in Camus’ view of absurdity: “Until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”
Jean Tarrou was a wanderer who happened along in Oran at the time of the plague. He joins in the battle against the plague with Rieux and they become fast friends. He is the plague’s last victim and Rieux notes that friends though they may have been, Tarrou died without their friendship having had time to enter fully into the life of either.
Tarrou is a rebel, or — if not a rebel — a maverick for the views he holds. He approaches Dr. Rieux one afternoon and asks him for one hour for the sake of friendship. In a long conversation, Tarrou reveals his disillusionment with his father’s support of capital punishment and with his own revolutionary party that guns down political leaders. He confesses that he hasn’t the mentality of a murderer. For him, the path of peace is the path of sympathy. His goal is to be on the right side of life. He says, “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims and it is up to us, as far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”
Tarrou, like Rieux, is not interested in heroism. He, too, believed that it was a matter of common decency to battle the plague wherever it might be found. However, although he did not believe in God, Tarrou was interested, unlike his friend, in holiness.
His goal was to become a saint — without God.
One suspects that this is the kind of holiness in which Camus was interested as well. The conviction is pervasive in Camus’ writings that a certain kind of holiness is possible — when God is absent. Holiness, for Camus, is two things: The affirmation that we live in a universe that is not fully comprehensible and that humankind cannot be protected from the tragic and brutal capriciousness of that universe, and second, one must determine to live consistently in rebellion and revolt in the midst of this fundamental, ontological reality.
Sainthood without God is not an impossible absurdity for Tarrou. If holiness is a viable concept at all, it consists in developing an answer to the absurd through taking up the struggle against the absurd. Holiness is not a matter of changing anything; it is a matter of being someone — someone sympathetic in a world of suffering; being angry with ignorance that claims to be knowledge.
Did Tarrou die a saint? Rieux is not sure. He told Tarrou that to be a saint, one must live! “What had he won?” Rieux asks. The answer, he says is “No more that the experience 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 the plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou would have called that winning the match.”
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