Existentialism and The Plague
In the mid 1940s, a man by the name of Albert Camus began to write a story. This story he called La Pesté. Written in French, the novel became extremely popular and has since been translated numerous times into many languages. This story has been read over and over, yet it tells more than it seems to. This story tells the tale of a city gripped by a deadly disease. This is true enough, but this is not what the novel is about. The Plague can be read as an allegory of World War II, of the French Resistance against German Occupation. "To simplify things, one can say that The Plague is an allegorical novel" (Picon 146). This however, is indeed an oversimplification, and so this only tells part of the story. Camus is often considered to have been an Existentialist. "That Existentialist philosophies offered him a vocabulary from which he occasionally borrowed is of secondary importance in his case" (Brée, Camus 74). Perhaps this, Existentialism, is the focus of the novel? Not, it is not quite that simple. The Plague tells the story of a fight: not a fight against a disease, not a fight against German soldiers, but a fight against the indifference in the face of human suffering. Every man responds to this in his own manner, and this reaches to the heart of the Existential philosophy -- it is actions that truly define a man.
"No, I am not an existentialist" (Doubrovsky 345). These words come from Albert Camus himself. It is true; Camus was not an Existentialist. Yes, he embraced much of existentialism, but not all. What, then, do Existentialists believe, and of this, what does Camus reject and what does he accept? To the existentialist, life is meaningless in and of itself. Therefore, "Since life made no sense, each man must give meaning to his individual existence" (McCarthy 202). Thus, a man defines his very existence by his own day-to-day actions.
For Camus, on the other hand, a man's acts could reveal an
intrinsic integrity or dignity which were always there but which
had laid dormant and unasserted until he was made to face the
absurdity of his mortal condition in an immortal universe"
Key to understanding this is that the integrity is unasserted. Camus believed that man was more than just a shell to begin with, that there is some basic worth to a man. Within each man Camus believed that there is a spark of goodness which only he himself could fan into a flame.
While man may have innate goodness, what Camus saw in the world more often was indifference, inaction. Mankind failed to act on this goodness. Camus addresses this indifference in The Plague. Camus wrote this novel during a tumultuous time in history, World War II. Even before the war had begun, Camus saw this indifference. Camus watched as the nations of Western Europe sat idly by as Hitler's Germany seized lands, building his Reich. These lands believed they could ignore the problems Hitler was causing; they...