Quarantine Club: Part Four of The Plague



A) Many years ago I read Camus’s essay, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” in which he argued vehemently against capital punishment. This section reminded me of that extended essay, published in 1957, a decade after The Plague. Perhaps this section of the novel foreshadows later nonfiction work, and certainly parts of it have the feel of an essay to me. When Camus writes, "...I've been ashamed, mortally ashamed, of having been, even with the best intentions, even at many removes, a murderer in my turn" (p. 206 in my copy), I think he’s asserting that we're all guilty of killing when we live in a society that practices capital punishment, which he believes is a form of barbarism.

B) I shed no tears for Father Paneloux, though I sort of enjoyed his predictable last stand on the soapbox. It was almost comic. I thought of the Wicked Witch of the West when she cries, “I’m melting, I’m melting…” So I saw Paneloux as ridiculous, and there was the satisfaction of being rid of a fool when he died.

In that section, Paneloux says, “it [a love of God] alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children,” and again I think Camus believes we’re all complicit if we’re okay with that. Tarrou adds, “When an innocent youth can have his eyes destroyed, a Christian should either lose his faith or consent to having his eyes destroyed.” It’s almost like a dare from Camus: “So, all ye faithful, remind us just how ‘okay’ with suffering you are?” I’m curious to hear what other people made of this.

C) My heart is still with Dr. Rieux. He’s indefatigable and realistic, yet he doesn’t allow reality to make him crumble in despair. In this crisis we’ve learned that we’re expecting our frontline workers, or asking them, to be super-human and selfless (without adequate PPE!), and Dr. Rieux seems to embody that degree of sacrifice and strength.

D) “What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest – health, integrity, purity (if you like) – is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.” (Sorry, that’s two sentences, but they're just so powerful.)

Thinking of everyone on this Saturday! All best wishes for a fun and healthy weekend.


@1 -- Thank you for Paneloux as the Wicked Witch of the West in meltdown! Definitely no tears for him -- not for anyone so utterly ugly and soulless as to argue that "the sufferings of children were our bread of affliction, but without this bread our souls would die of spiritual hunger." Ugh! A thousand times ugh!

And Chase, thank you for the ducklings, especially since the ones here on Lake Union are still in their shells. (Sheltering in place, perhaps?)

But Christopher, all I really want to do in response to Part Four is swoon over that night-time swim, the language of it so sensuous I can practically feel it on my tongue.
"The sea spread out before them, a gently heaving expanse of deep-piled velvet, supple and sleek as a creature of the wild."
Velvet, yes: that's how water feels when you swim at night -- it seems to caress you, silky and smooth, thicker and more tactile than during the day. Wilder, true, but also kinder. And the darkness does seem to "stretch out into infinity."
I love the "strange happiness" that possesses Rieux and Tarrou, and the wordless rhythm they find between them. Two beautiful pages of escape/release/freedom, all the more precious for being short-lived.


Last week I watched A Single Man, and the night swimming scene in The Plague resonated with a similar scene in the movie, when the main character (Colin Firth) and his student (Nicholas Hoult) go skinny dipping in the Pacific. The threat hanging over the main character all day gets swept aside by the powerful waves and the immensity of the ocean. And, as with Rieux and Tarrou, there's the happiness of sharing a human moment with a sympathetic friend.

A. The bit you quoted,Christopher ("Each of us have the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it"), came through more clearly for me in a different part:
"When I suggested to [Cottard]," Tarrou continues, "that the surest way of not being cut off from others was having a clean conscience, he frowned. 'If that is so, everyone's always cut off from everyone else.'

I read that as Camus saying there's no way of being human and morally pure, or human and non-infectious with regard to something or other. We all hurt each other. We all hurt the ones we love, maybe most of all. There's no cure, just the ongoing treatment of recognizing the hurt, apologizing, and trying to do better.

B. Yes, I'm not sad Paneloux died. I didn't have much patience for his pontificating about the divine meaning of it all, and I found it infuriating that he used his privilege to stay home and endanger his landlady.

C. I'm hoping Grand survives, mostly because of this quote, which features three of my favorite sentences in Part IV:
"Oh, doctor, I know I look a quiet sort, just like anybody else. But it's always been a terrible effort only to be, just normal. And now, well, even that's too much for me."

D. One more sentence I liked: "Personally I regarded this accomplishment of his [the railroad obsession] as quite as admirable in its ways as most accomplishments." It's hard for me to follow Tarrou when he talks about learning to become a saint or about achieving "health, integrity, purity" via a "vigilance that must never falter," but I do like his observation that small, joyful achievements can be worthwhile.


A. I think Camus uses the plague as a metaphor for the existential angst of mortality. We all face it within us.
B. Probably not quite as much as you ;-)
C. The doctor
D. Favorite 2 sentences: when Rieux asks Tarrou what is the way to find peace, and Tarrou says “sympathy.”


The swimming scene struck me as well. That read to me as a truly lived experience, a sensual moment, apart from all the rest of the book. I knew that the writer had been in that very place, seeking solace by the water, and jumped into the sea.

In re. Father Paneloux:. Fuck that guy. I feel the same way I do when someone like Rand Paul gets sick. No tears for those sanctimonious hypocrites.

But I don't feel that way about Coutard. He's a creep and a profiteer, but I don't want him to die. I relate to him, I see where he's coming from, even if he's repugnant. He isn't any longer a pariah, and means to make the most of the situation. It's the balance you're talking about Christopher, the ability of Camus to build sympathy for even a disturbing character.


Agreed with others -- the night-time swim was fantastic. I'm jealous. I live in a huge metropolis with no available swimmable water. I wonder if anyone in Seattle has had a secret night swim -- yes I know it's cold but still. And it raises the question of if it lasts through the summer, will night swims become a release mechanism?

A. Tarrou’s comment seems to mean that everyone is responsible, in his or her own little way, for the death or suffering of someone else, and that being a cog in a machine or “just doing your job” isn’t enough to warrant forgiveness for these acts. “In short, I’m just an innocent murderer” – an oxymoron, of course. It’s a worthwhile thought, I think, but goes a bit far. Sure, there are things one can do to reduce one’s footprint or suffering in the world, but what about people who devote their lives to easing the suffering of others? Is there some kind of cosmic scale to measure the balance?

B. Paneloux had to die. Camus’ condemnation of religion needed it. Sure, there’s schadenfreude, in the same way there would be if Trump came down with C19. I’m an atheist, so I don’t have a dog in the race, but it’s obvious there are plenty of bad religious people and clergy. But there are also some good ones. NYT reported today that 100 Italian priests have died of C19 so far. They’re administering to the sick and performing last rites, and putting themselves at risk. Sure, if you don’t believe in heaven you think it’s a bit pointless, but it provides comfort to people who are suffering (regardless of whether it’s rational, the effects are real).

C. Tarrou? Seems like he bared his soul and is doing things for the right reason. But it also probably means he’s doomed.

D. A couple of sentences, that reflect today as well: “The profiteers were taking a hand and purveying it at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in shops. The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing. Thus, whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it had now the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts.” Too true.


@6 -- Wish I could say yes to your question about secret Seattle night swims (you're right -- they do feel secret), but I'm a wuss, and the water won't warm up enough for me until at least June. The question then being:
Will I ever swim at night again without thinking of Tarrou and Rieux?

(And will you? Here's looking forward to a vaccine, when you can visit from your landlocked metropolis and come swim in the darkness of Lake Union.)


@7 I always liked late night swims in the little dead-end spots on Lake Washington, south of Madison Beach -- but only on those few summer nights when it stays warm enough. I hope to be back to Seattle in August if all is well and will definitely get in the water.


@6, @8 -- Am curious. You don't have to answer this if you don't want, but why the chicken tag? You don't seem at all chickeny to me.


A) Tarrou's monologue made me think about my work with incarceration and victims of the criminal engagement system - the radical act of forgiveness and restorative justice. There are many layers of plague to dig under until you might arrive at a place where you see a person at a greater depth than their actions. And many layers to dig under until you arrive at where your actions begin. "That's why everybody in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of plague. But that is also why some of us, those who want to get the plague out of their systems, feel such desperate weariness..." How radical to keep digging, no matter how tired and how many walls you're up against.

B) My friend's sister was in the COVID unit last week at a hospital in Eastern Washington, on a ventilator because alcohol poisoning had shut her body down. Her kidneys stopped working, she couldn't breathe on her own. My friend called their parents so that the family had a conduit around HIPPA for information and updates while her sister was incapacitated, so far away, at such a bleak, lonely time. Their father, a (violently) devout evangelical said, "It's up to god. In fact, let's pray now - let's pray that God will forgive Katie and give her a second chance." And then he drove to Phoenix in a Dodge Sprinter full of guns to start enjoying his retirement. So. To that. I say. Fuck my friend's father, fuck his God, fuck Paneloux, fuck HIS god, fuck men saying stupid shit in general.

C) Dr. Fauci. So hot right now. JK - Dr. Rieux, boring choice, but we've come this far.

D) "So the only thing for us to do was to go on waiting, and since after a too long waiting, one gives up waiting, the whole town lived as if it had no future." Me, on my second pina colada...


@9 Jajajaja! Old handle. Used to be Carnivorous Chicken on the old Stranger board. Which was the name of a friend's punk band in Seattle. I am not even sure if they played any shows. But CC is a nickname for the T-Rex, apparently, which I didn't know. And I needed a name so...


@11 -- Cool. I'll just think of you as Carnivorous for short. Or is that for long?


@12 - Lesley, your mask is ready! Could you please email your address to me? I know Chris is swamped. andreacaswell [at] bennington dot edu


A. I am staggered by the way our own plague has shined a spotlight on our society & the cracks in the assumptions we’ve been living under. Now we have to ask ourselves things like: What is really important? How do our actions affect others? What constitutes an ethical life?
Tarrou is questioning the assumptions, complacency & complicity of everyone in the violence of the WWII & postwar world, But those of us in the present are living with impossibly complex & interconnected systems that make up our world today.. We exist in a constant state of moral peril as our day to day lives inflict all manner of trauma on the environment and other people try to survive the carnage of capitalism. My car is heating the planet! My lunch exploiting workers! My coffee is killing songbirds!
Tarrou gets it--our situation is impossible

B. Are you as happy as I am that Father is dead?
I had a shiver of schadenfreude when Paneloux fell to the plague. It doesn’t reflect well on my character that part of me is wishing the same fate on those douchenozzles preachers who are insisting on gathering their gullible flocks together in churches, but here we are.

C. Tarrou has been my favorite character from the beginning. I love this guy. He first appears somewhat abstracted & spacey, but then he rises to the occasion & organizes the community to get shit done. Rieux is the obvious hero in this book, but I relate most to Tarrou’s gentle nerdiness & his epic sense of moral responsibility.

D. Tarrou: ”As time went on I merely learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live, and we can’t stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody.” He shines that spotlight on us all here--just living in the modern world makes us all ethically complicit in some kind of moral malfeasance.


@14 - Thank you for articulating so well the many questions we must ask of ourselves and society now. I agree that the cracks are being laid bare, and it's been a surprise to see how far and wide they reach. Tarrou in D. above: He gets it. We are all in it. The "carnage of capitalism" is a great description - thank you for these wise words tonight.


A) One of the sentences that struck me in Tarrou's comments to Rieux on the rooftop begins at the bottom of page 253 in my edition: "All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences."

That entire section of the novel gives the reader so many insights into Tarrou's personal history and how it has shaped him. It seems to have driven him to decency, to embracing the humanity in himself and others. And he is aware that it could have gone otherwise.

B) Adieu, Paneloux! I found a bit of dark humor in the contrast between one of his 2nd sermon admonitions: "My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything" (p. 224) and, after he has died (p.234): Against his name the index card recorded: "Doubtful case."

C) Rieux, followed closely by Tarrou, because they are so competent and steady, exhausted and yet tireless in their efforts to help their fellow citizens, to be useful in the face of an overwhelming tragedy. But there are so many references by the narrator to the fact that he is quoting one account or another from Tarrou's journal, that it seems obvious that Tarrou is not going to be there in the end.

D) My favorite passage comes as Rieux and Tarrou are sitting on the boulders by the water: "Rieux could feel under his hand the gnarled, weather-worn visage of the rocks, and a strange happiness possessed him. Turning to Tarrou, he caught a glimpse on his friend's face of the same happiness, a happiness that forgot nothing, not even murder."

@3-- The runner-up for my favorite passage has to be the one you cited in answer to Question C, and it's spoken by Grand: "Oh, doctor, I know I look a quiet sort, just like anybody else. But it's always been a terrible effort only to be, just normal. And now, well, even that's too much for me."


A. My first thought was that it's similar to the 'capitalism is the virus' idea, but well stated.

B. Yeah, fuck that guy.

C. Tarrou. Ugh.

D. "It comes to this," Tarrou said almost casually; "what interests me is learning how to become a saint."
"But you don't believe in God."
"Exactly! Can one be a saint without God?--That's the problem, in fact the only problem, I'm up against today."


@16 LauraPDX - I have your mask but not your address. Please email to andreacaswell [at] bennington dot edu. Thanks!


Apparently completely dropped the ball on the last section? Get it together Frizzelle.


The Chicken @19 -- If people are interested, I'm sure we could manage to discuss the end of the book here in this thread. We could each name our favorite sentence and anything that surprised us about Part V.

I'll post mine if anyone else posts theirs. :)


@20 Sure -- you go first!

Although I will add: one of the best parts for me about part 5 was the way Camus anthropomorphised the plague in the opening pages.


Never mind, he posted the Part V discussion here:


Ahh, I'm embarrassed to report that it took me until this week to "slog" (how punny!) my way through this section. It's not that long. And yet it felt endless -- ruminations and rumblings and a place just fixed in time, even as its characters move about. Clearly, not unlike Seattle (and everywhere else) in present times. The reality of stillness probably made the book's stillness feel even longer.

But I did it. Hooray for me. Had I cheated (ish) and read the enthusiasm with which Christopher approached this section first, I probably would have drawn on that enthusiasm and got through a lot faster. Alas.

But I'm thrilled to see my ducklings photo made the top slot =D It baffled me when they closed the parking lots to Volunteer Park, since only a handful of people were ever there when I went to check up on my friends every other night or so. It's much more challenging to drop by with a hobbling senior dog, and I haven't been back recently. I'm sure they're still cute, but a bit bigger.

Onward to the questions:

(A) To me, this whole pontification section was both really intriguing and really annoying -- enough so that I was writing about it (old school, with a pen) as I went. To summarize: I appreciated the musings that challenge as "natural" the man-made systems which kill people systemically, but are horrified at the (overall less fatal, but unintentional/unknown) plague. They also drove me nuts in their self-involved "I'm privileged and it's so hard for me" approach.

(B) I'm relatively neutral on Father Paneloux's death. I wished someone would have punched him in the face, and from there he saw the light and turned himself around. But in light of these "let us go where we want en masse with our guns" style of "protests" (more like hijackings) I'm starting to feel a little less benevolent.

(C) I'm rooting for Rieux's wife. We haven't seen much of her, and I want to know what her story is. This may be partly a "don't put a loaded gun on the stage if you're not firing it" sort of a thing.

(D) Favorite sentence: "Indeed, considering the abnormal conditions they were up against, the very word 'novelty' had lost all meaning" (220). I feel that!