A short book review of The Plague focused on existentialism, feminism and psychotherapy.
Read for: Existentialism and…being creeped out by accuracy.
Another ‘oldie, but a goodie’. Published in 1947, The Plague is one of Camus’ most known books. In perfect Camus style, the novel is narrated by an unknown narrator whose outlook on life is decisively absurdist,
In the novel, Camus tells the story of a plague-stricken, imaginary city in the then French colony of Algeria. The town’s ordinary life is interrupted by the enveloping shadow of the plague as they are forced to go into lockdown and fight the disease. Sounds familiar? You don’t say.
Camus never experienced the plague or Covid-19 – he researched the topic extensively and somehow was able to portray an eerily accurate description of events, feelings and thoughts that are now all-too-known to us in 2020. Not only does he describe the absurd shift from ordinary, open-for-business normality to the absurd, dream-like everydayness of ‘death counts’; Camus also describes, through the behaviour and words of the book’s characters much of what has been going on in the world this year: there is a character who thrives in the age of the plague and then retreats to his normal self after the last sick are healed; there is the call to arms, so to speak, of hospitals which do not have the capacity to deal with so many deaths and sick; there is the gut-wrenching reality that plague (like Covid) does not care who its victims are. There is longing for normality and the absurd desire to go back to life as if nothing had happened.
Camus was one of the most prominent exponents of existentialism, so it will come as no wonder that I highly recommend this book from that point of view. However, his personal kind of existentialism has come to be known as ‘absurdism’. Wikipedia describes the absurd as ‘the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe.’
It’s the kind that makes you want to scream and also laugh at the same time, for me.
From a feminist point of view, there is not much to say really. This book is not feminist, was not intended as feminist, and the lack of active female character is unsurprising. This book was published around the same years that De Beauvoir published The Second Sex and the world wasn’t ready for it. Camus’ universe is definitely a man-centric one.
Although this book has nothing to do with psychotherapy, I would say that it has been a very cathartic experience to read it. Reading about the plague, like a far-off event of an imaginary town gave that kind of distance from the current situation that I hadn’t had for months. It also afforded me some perspective. Do we need to rush back to normality as though nothing had happened? Are we deluded in looking for purpose in this pandemic? Is our reaction so different after all from our distant cousins in 1918 who found themselves fighting the Spanish Flu? Are pandemics really that rare?
Overall, I recommend The Plague, but it’s not for the faint-hearted, especially after the collective trauma that we are experiencing right now. I do recommend it though for starting to process the trauma.
I hope you found this book review The Plague useful.