Albert Camus’s “The Plague”, 3

It’s the third part of our excerpts of The Plague, that is an allegorical story of our current world. Our excerpts are a very compact version of Albert Camus’s The Plague, and will be published in four parts. The first and second parts have been published before, and here are the third part :

“The following day, as a result of what was considered excessive insistence, Rieux persuaded the Prefect’s office to appoint a health commission … Richard announced that in his opinion they should not give way to panic: all they could say for certain was that it was an infection with inguinal complications; and it was dangerous to jump to conclusions. Old Castel announced that he knew very well it was plague, but that, of course, if they were to acknowledge the fact officially, they would have to take stern measures. He knew that, underneath, this was what held his colleagues back and as a result, not to upset them, he was quite willing to state that it was not plague… Richard emphasized that this meant they should not rush to judgment and that they would at least have to wait for the statistical result of the series of analyses, which had begun a few days earlier …Richard felt that they should not paint too black a picture, and that in any case there was no proof of contagion since the relatives of his patients were still unaffected …‘If we don’t acknowledge it,’ said Rieux, ‘it still threatens to kill half the population of the town’. Richard interrupted nervously … Rieux asked: “Was Dr Richard prepared to take responsibility for stating that the epidemic would stop without strict preventive health measures?” Richard hesitated and looked at Rieux. ‘Sincerely, tell me what you think: are you certain that this is plague?’ ‘You’re asking the wrong question. It is not a matter of vocabulary, but a matter of time’ … The day after the conference, it even entered the newspapers, but under a harmless guise, since they merely made a few allusions to it . On the day after that Rieux could read some little white posters that they had rapidly had stuck up in the least obtrusive corners of the town. From this poster it was hard to reach the conclusion that the authorities were confronting the situation. The measures were far from draconian and it appeared that a good deal had been done to avoid upsetting public opinion.The preamble to the decree announced that a few cases of a pernicious fever had been detected in the commune of Oran, though it was not yet possible to say whether or not it was contagious. These cases were not specific enough to be really disturbing and there was no doubt that the population would remain calm … The day before, around ten patients had died in the town … ‘People are talking about an epidemic. Is it true, doctor?’, the patient asked. ‘People are always talking, that’s normal,’ Rieux said. ‘You’re right. And when a dozen people die, they’ll say it’s the end of the world. It’s just what we don’t need‘ … Up to then, sick people had made it easy for him, they had come halfway to meet him. Now, for the first time, the doctor felt that they were reticent, retreating into the depths of their illness with a kind of suspicious astonishment. This was a struggle to which he had not yet become accustomed … ‘So doctor, is it cholera?’ “Where did you get that idea?’ ‘In the paper. The radio says the same thing.’ ‘No, it’s not cholera. ‘In any case,’ the old man said, in a state of great excitement, ‘they’re exaggerating, aren’t they, those bigwigs?’ ‘Don’t believe any of it,’ said the doctor.… However, in four days the infection took four surprising leaps: 16 dead, then 24, 28 and 32. On the fourth day they announced the opening of the auxiliary hospital in an infants’ school … Rieux decided to phone the Prefect. ‘What we are doing is not enough.’ ‘I have the figures,’ the Prefect said. ‘They certainly are disturbing.’ ‘They are more than disturbing, they are quite unequivocal.’ ‘I’m going to ask for instructions from the State government.’ Rieux hung up, ‘Instructions! What he needs is imagination’ … In the evenings the same crowd filled the streets and queues extended outside the cinemas. The epidemic seemed to be declining and for a few days they counted only ten or so deaths. Then, suddenly, it shot up. On the day when the death-toll once more reached thirty , Rieux looked at the official telegram which the Prefect had held out to him, saying: ‘They’re scared.’ The telegram read: “‘DECLARE A STATE OF PLAGUE STOP CLOSE THE TOWN'”

“From that point on, it could be said that the plague became the affair of us all. Up to then, despite the surprise and anxiety that these unusual events had brought us, everyone had gone on with his business, as well as he could, in the usual place. And that no doubt would continue. But, once the gates were closed, they all noticed that they were in the same boat, including the narrator himself, and that they had to adjust to the fact. This is how, for example, a quite individual feeling such as being separated from a loved one suddenly became, in the very first weeks, the feeling of a whole people and, together with fear, the greatest agony of that long period of exile … One of the most remarkable consequences of the closing of the gates was, indeed, a sudden separation of people who were not prepared for it. Mothers and children, wives, husbands and lovers, who had imagined a few days earlier that they were embarking on a temporary separation, who had embraced on the platform of the station with some pieces of last-minute advice, sure that they would see one another a few days or a few weeks later, deeply entrenched in their idiotic human faith in the future , this parting causing barely a pause in the course of their everyday concerns, found themselves abruptly and irremediably divided, prevented from meeting or communicating with one another, because the gates were closed some hours before the decree was published and, of course, it was impossible to consider individual cases … Even the faint satisfaction of writing letters was denied us. On the one hand, the town was no longer linked to the rest of the country by the usual means of communication, and on the other, a new decree forbade the exchange of any correspondence, to prevent letters from transmitting the infection … Intercity telephone calls, permitted at first, caused such overcrowding in public phone booths and on the lines that they were entirely stopped for a few days, then strictly limited to what were described as urgent cases … Very soon, those who were prisoners of the plague realized the danger to which they were exposing their loved ones and resigned themselves to enduring separation. At the worst point in the epidemic, we saw only one case where human feelings proved stronger than the fear of a horrible death. This was not, as you might imagine, a case of two young lovers induced to put love before suffering … In reality, we suffered doubly: from our own suffering first and then from what we imagined to be that of the absent loved one, whether son, spouse or lover … Thus, the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow-citizens was exile … At that moment, the collapse of the people’s morale, their will power and their patience was so abrupt that they felt they would never be able to climb back out of their hole. Consequently, they forced themselves never to think of the end of their suffering, never again to look towards the future and always, as it were, to keep their eyes lowered. But naturally this caution, this way of deceiving one’s pain and dropping one’s guard to refuse to fight, was ill-rewarded. At the same time as avoiding the collapse that they wished to avert at any price, they also deprived themselves of those moments, actually quite frequent, when they might have forgotten the plague by imagining their coming reunion with the ones they loved. Though this was exile, in most cases it was exile at home. And though the narrator only suffered an ordinary exile, he should not forget those, like the journalist Rambert and others, whose situation was different, and for whom the pain of separation was amplified by the fact that, being travelers surprised by the plague in the town, they were separated not only from the person to whom they could not return, but from their homes as well … Finally, in these extremes of loneliness, no one could hope for help from his neighbor and everyone remained alone with his anxieties… At the very moment when the inhabitants of the town started to panic, their thoughts were entirely concerned with the person for whom they were waiting. The egotism of love protected them in the midst of the general distress and, if they did think about the plague, it was always and only to the extent that it risked making their separation eternal … Their despair saved them from panic, so there was some good in their misfortune. For example, if it happened that one of them did succumb to the disease, it was almost always before he became aware of it. Dragged away from the long dialogue that he was holding inside himself with a shadow, he would then be cast forthwith into the still deeper silence of the earth. He had no time for anything. Despite these unusual scenes, the townspeople apparently found it hard to understand what was happening to them. There were those shared feelings, like separation or fear, but people also went on giving priority to their personal concerns. No one yet had really accepted the idea of the disease . Most were chiefly affected by whatever upset their habits or touched on their interests. They were annoyed or irritated by them, and these are not feelings with which to fight the plague”

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