Great Books from Different Traditions: France
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Most Americans tend to think of the French as great romantics, wining and dining their partners and whispering seductive and lilting phrases into each other’s ears. Indeed, just about any phrase or sentence uttered in French—it is a Romance language (even though that word has nothing to do with our use of the same term), after all—sounds more seductive and alluring than the same phrase or sentence spoken in just about any other language. The trilled “r”s, the clipped and passionate phrasing, and the breathless delivery bring even the dullest philosophical terms to life and turn food and sex into activities without which life cannot be sustained.
In addition to a beautiful and sensuous language, France has bequeathed to us a magnificent literature, without which the world’s literature would be impoverished. As the French language developed, so did France’s literature. As with many European nations in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, villages and urban centers slowly overthrew Latin as the language of the people and began to develop a vernacular in which various poems, epics, and legends could be sung and told. Although Latin remained as a language of commerce and religion, court poets, troubadours, minstrels, and chivalric poets traveled the countryside singing tales of ladies’ love, knights’ valor, and love affairs between kings and ladies. Village folk entertained themselves with fables depicting the foibles of the nobility, and legends such as the Chanson de Roland and Aucassin and Nicolette circulated widely, celebrating the ideal of chivalry in bawdy tales of adultery. In fact, much of French literature celebrates human carnality, the pleasures of the flesh, and the joys and miseries of adultery in ways that no other literature does. Although they were written just seven years apart, The Scarlet Letter (1850) could never have been written in France, just as Madame Bovary (1857) could never have been written in colonial America. (In “The Kugelmass Episode” in Without Feathers, Woody Allen places Emma in modern-day New York in the life of a literature professor who’s teaching her story. She drives him crazy.) French literature has given us the Marquis de Sade as well as The Story of O, Colette’s Gigi and Raymond Queneau’s Zadie at the Metro, Rousseau’s Heloise and Anais Nin’s Little Birds of Erotica.
The literature of France is diverse, and choosing ten great books is tremendously difficult. As with every list, there will be some argument about which titles might best represent an author. The ones I have selected are not necessarily the most well known or the ones taught but do capture the author’s major themes. At least one of these books is not very well known, but it is a precursor to Flaubert and late nineteenth-century French novels. The sheer volume of the writing I have left out in this list requires future columns, and it certainly indicates the rich lodes of French literature to be mined by all readers.
Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel. The great late medieval and early Renaissance epic of that depicts the dawning of the modern age. The appetites and excesses of the two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel, are infamous and depict a world turned upside down. This carnivalesque tale, with its earthy and grotesque characters, symbolizes the revolution occurring during Rabelais’ time—the movement from a religious view of life to a more humanistic view of life—as well as the overturning of political authority and the growth of new working classes.
Voltaire, Candide. One of the greatest satires of all time, Voltaire led the way in questioning the authority of the Church. He wrote the story of Candide and the philosopher Pangloss as a response to the philosopher Leibniz’s assertion that the early eighteenth century was the “best of all possible worlds.” In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake in 1756, Voltaire challenges Leibniz’s assertion and demonstrates that this is indeed not the best of all possible worlds.
Michel de Montaigne, Essays. Montaigne invented the essay, and he used the form to range freely over a huge number of topics, from the education of children—which he thought should be restricted to a study of philosophy—to lies, idleness, cannibals, and books. The longest essay on his Essays is an Apology for Raymond Sebond (and here, of course, the word “apology” is used in its true sense of “defense,”) in which he offers one of the clearest philosophical treatises on the relationship between reason and religion in the Renaissance. The key quality of Montaigne’s essays is sincerity; he uses the form to examine and to judge subjects in which he himself is personally interested and, in so doing, encourages others to take up this form and proceed in the same manner (which Addison and Steele did in eighteenth century England and Joseph Epstein is America’s Montaigne). Above all, Montaigne relentlessly probes his own experiences for truth. The great nineteenth-century philosopher Nietzsche proclaimed that “joy on earth has truly increased that such a man has written.”
Blaise Pascal, Pensées. Pascal began his life as a mathematician and is known well for his work in geometry, known as Pascal’s Theory. Later in life, Pascal joined the religious community known as the Jansenists, and produced his most famous late work, a collection of aphorisms, or pensées (thoughts). Much like Montaigne, Pascal examined the relationship between faith and reason, but unlike Montaigne, Pascal, being the good priest that he was, landed on the side of religion and emphasized humankind’s vulnerable nature and its need for God. At the same time, Pascal, thought that the rational faculty and the imagination were significant human attributes. Pascal is most famous for his wager regarding God’s existence. “If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is . . ..
’God is, or He is not.’ But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. ‘No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.’
Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. ‘That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.’ Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.
In one of his most well-known pensées, Pascal shows at once the strengths of the human character and its dependence on God: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing . . . It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”
Zola, L’Assommoir. Zola is the father of literary naturalism, a movement that holds a mirror up to nature and reports not just on the scene reflected in the mirror (which Flaubert did with his realism) but on the sordid details and the grime, grit, and grotesquery of everyday life. If Zola had written Les Miserables, Jean Valjean’s crawling around in the Paris sewers would have been even more horrific because his story would have had no redemption; that is, he would have had no choices in his life, and even a small glimmer of redemption would have been dashed by the force of circumstances. Although Germinal is perhaps Zola’s most read book, many of his other novels in his Rougon-Macquart cycle are more gripping. In L’Assommoir, the laundress Gervaise Macquart, who appears once again in Nana and other novels in the cycle, struggles to find happiness in working-class Paris. After years of struggling as a laundress, Gervaise saves enough money to open her own laundry business. It appears as if she will be able to pull herself and her family out of the abject poverty in which they have been living. Yet, as her business grows, her husband, Coupeau, a zinc worker, falls off a roof and injures himself, leaving him unable to work. He spends his days, and Gervaise’s money, at L’Assommoir, a bar at whose center stands a gigantic alcohol still. As in many Naturalist novels, machines represent the horrors of industrialization and are indeed metaphors for a process that dehumanizes society. (Zola uses the railway and trains in La Bête Humaine to make the same point.) This powerful and inhuman machine sucks the life form those around it.
In L’Assommoir, the packed working-class slums, the pulsing still, and even the greasy, steamy laundries determine the fates of their inhabitants. As hard as Gervaise works to pull herself out of poverty, the labyrinthine streets of her neighborhood trap her in their web, squeezing the life out of her and her family. This environment eventually defeats her will, even though for a short time her physical will seems strong enough to defeat the forces that drain the life from her. The increasing industrialization that creates the alcohol still, the urban slum, and the proletariat poison simple relationships, leading to death, debauchery, and degradation.
Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Paul and Virginia. This gorgeous little novel is the least well known book on this list, but it deserves to be better known and to have a broader audience. The novel explores Rousseau’s themes of the nobility of natural humanity—raised naturally, without the constraints of society, children are good, loving and beautiful creatures; it’s part of their nature—as well as the philosopher’s ideas about the positive values that a close knit family group conveys. More than that, this is a heart-breaking love story that ends tragically; its pathos tears at one’s soul even more that the final scene of Madame Bovary when little Berthe, whose mother has already committed suicide, finds her father dead in the garden. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s novel deeply influenced Flaubert. After she is married, for example, Emma Bovary reflects on her reading of the novel and concludes that her marriage to Charles is missing the purity and the simple beauty of the love between Paul and Virginia. In fact, Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet that “Virginia’s death is very beautiful, but so many other deaths are equally moving (because Virginia’s is exceptional!). What is admirable is the letter she writes to Paul from Paris. It always tears out my heart when I read it. There will be less weeping at the death of my old Bovary than at Virginia’s, I am sure of that in advance.” Set on the tropical island of Mauritius, this Romantic novel tells the tragic tale of two children whose doomed love moves us deeply. Much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein [published thirty years later], Paul and Virginia evokes the innocence of human nature, the yearning for love all human experience, and the devastation we feel when love is robbed from us when the outside world breaks into our earthly paradises. The children are raised in an idyllic paradise, and it is only when Virginia leaves to go to France for her education that their world falls apart. Early in the novel, the narrator describes the beauty of Paul and Virginia’s paradisiacal life:
They had no other studies but helping and pleasing each other . . . never had the teachings of a gloomy morality filled them with anxiety . . . Thus did their early years pass like a lovely dawn which gives promise of a lovelier day . . . their eyes . . . made them seem like those children of heaven, those blessed spirits whose very nature is mutual love and who need no thoughts to render their feelings nor words for their affection.
In spite of its sentimentality, the novel raises a number of philosophical issues and greatly influences Flaubert and a host of other nineteenth-century novelists.
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Emma Bovary turned 150 years old in October 2007. Yet, she remains as fetching and seductive as ever. The films made from this novel have never justly captured Emma’s sensuous and languorous beauty. Her description in the novel’s early scenes distinctly contrasts her with Charles Bovary’s first wife, a widow from Dieppe, who is “ugly, thin as a lath, with as many pimples as the spring has buds.” Charles’s life changes, of course, when he is called out late one night to the farm of old Monsieur Rouault. The farmer has broken his leg, and he rouses Charles—a provincial physician who is licensed to set broken bones and administer some drugs, but not to perform surgery—to ride out and set his leg. Charles first catches sight of Emma Rouault as she opens the door and invites him in to care for her father. In the way of a romantic novel, Charles falls almost immediately in love with this young woman, for he is enchanted by her beauty.
Charles was astonished at the whiteness of her nails. They were shiny and tapering, scrubbed cleaner than Dieppe ivory, and cut almond-shape. Her beauty was in her eyes—brown eyes, but made to look black by their dark lashes: eyes that came to meet yours openly, with a bold candor . . .
Her hair, so smooth that its two black braids seemed each a single piece, was parted in the middle with a fine line that dipped slightly with the curve of her head, and was swept together in a thick bun at the back, leaving the tips of her ears just visible . . . Her cheeks were like rosy apples; and she carried a pair of tortoise-shell eye-glasses attached, in masculine fashion, to two buttonholes of her bodice.
For her part, Emma envisions marriage to Charles as a means of moving upwardly from her farm life to village life and then to urban life. Enamored of the great love between two souls about which she has read in romance novels, including Paul and Virginia, she marries Charles, only to be sorely disappointed by the reality of love and marriage—at least marriage to Charles, whom she once describes in the novel as flat as the pavement on which everyone walks. Soon after their marriage, Emma grows increasingly dissatisfied and consummates two affairs. Her first, with the dashing and self-centered Rodolphe, brims with the overwhelming passion for which Emma yearns. Yet, when she tried to romanticize their relationship by sending Rodolphe love letters, he quickly drops her, sending her into a downward spiral. Rodolphe is Emma’s döppelganger, for he is as self-centered as she, seeking only his satisfaction. Between affairs, Emma seeks to assuage her depression about her marriage by shopping and overspending to surround herself with fine things. This, of course, sinks her deeper into debt and then into depression. She has a child, but she faints when she learns it is a girl, for she had wanted her son to be a dashing military character. She tries to love Charles, even goading him to perform a surgery on Hyppolite, their club-footed servant, even though muddle-headed Charles is neither qualified nor skilled to perform such surgery. She convinces herself that Charles will be a hero and she will love him madly when the surgery succeeds. Alas, the surgery fails, and she is thrown even more violently into her hatred of Charles and more determined to find passion and love. She thinks she has found new passion in Léon, a young lawyer, and they meet at the cathedral of Rouen to commence their affair. In the thrall of her adultery with Léon, Emma becomes even more beautiful:
Never had Madame Bovary been so beautiful as at this time. She had that indefinable beauty that comes from joy, enthusiasm, success, and which is only the harmony of temperament with circumstances . . . Her eyelashes seemed formed expressly for long amorous gazes where the pupil sank into depths, while a deep breath opened her delicate nostrils and lifted the corners of her ripe lips, shadowed by a bit of dark down . . . Her voice now took on softer modulations, her figure as well. Something subtle that took hold of you wafted from the very folds of her dress and the curve of her foot.
Eventually, however, Emma finds all the banalities of marriage in the affair and casts off Léon. Faced with mounting debt and a passionless marriage, Emma kills herself, leaving her daughter, Berthe, and Charles behind. Charles soon dies, leaving behind his young daughter.
Flaubert’s masterpiece deserves its own column, really. My very brief plot summary cannot begin to capture the beauty of the writing, the richness of the novel’s details, and the genius of the novel’s literary structure. It’s easy to say that Madame Bovary is the greatest French novel, and perhaps the greatest novel of the nineteenth century. It is the first realist novel, and Flaubert is the father of literary realism. Literary realism takes a mirror and holds it up to reality, and the novelist then describes the reality he or she sees in the mirror in all its detail. The novelist refuses to make moral judgments on his characters, simply presenting them with all their foibles and blemishes. With his characteristic genius, Flaubert constructs several scenes in the novel that build in rapid-fire intensity to a humorous and revealing climax. In Part Two, Rodolphe and Emma visit the annual agricultural fair. As they exchange romantic words, the narrator juxtaposes them with the words of an auctioneer. As the couple’s romantic conversation builds, Rodolphe remarks, “A hundred times I wanted to leave, and I followed you, I stayed”; almost immediately the auctioneer yells out, “Manures!” The language of the scene itself reveals to us Rodolphe’s real nature; he’s full of manure. Emma does not yet realize this, though, because at the end of the scene, her hand is warm and trembling, and she is ever more ready to give herself to her lover. Even though some readers of Madame Bovary want to condemn Emma’s adulterous ways, the narrator never questions her activities, only presenting them as they occur. Is Emma a strong woman, throwing over the vagaries of romanticism in order to develop her own identity and live life her own way? Or, is she trapped by the sentimental elements of romanticism, trying to capture in her own life the momentous but all too fleeting passions about which she had read in her novels? What caused Emma to commit suicide? Unhappiness in love and marriage? The strictures of a nineteenth-century patriarchal society? Simple despair over her debt and her inability to pay it? Do we feel sorry for Emma in her marriage to Charles? Do we mourn over her death? Flaubert never answers these questions, of course, but allows us to decide for ourselves. Madame Bovary richly repays reading after reading, for the beauty of the novel is in its details.
Honoré de Balzac, Lost Illusions. Much like Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novel cycle that followed twenty years later, Balzac’s multi-novel cycle, the Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy) offers superlative psychological insight into the corrupt social world into which individuals must enter and make their way. As anyone who recalls the claustrophobic poverty of Père Goriot or the ongoing conflicts between the new bourgeois and the working classes in Eugénie Grandet or Cousin Bette will remember, Balzac captures superbly the sinister effects of the industrialization of France in the mid-nineteenth century. Balzac’s novels provide the foundation of Flaubert’s realism and Zola’s naturalism. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Flaubert’s Sentimental Education without Balzac’s Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions), each of which chronicles the downfall of a young man from the provinces who comes to the city searching for literary fame only to find his hopes dashed.
Some critics have called Lost Illusions the backbone of Balzac’s cycle, The Human Comedy. The famous Marxist critic George Lukács called the novel, “the tragic-comedy of the capitalization of spirit.” Balzac wrote Lost Illusions over a period of six years, and it follows the career of the young provincial poet, Lucien Charon, who has won acclaim as a poet in his small village and who travels to Paris to make his literary name there. The theme of provincial youth crossing into the city limits to find fame, fortune, and acclaim is of course a familiar one and a number of realist novels explore the theme from a variety of perspectives: Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (as mentioned already), Gissing’s New Grub Street, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, Zola’s The Ladies Paradise, Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, among others.
Balzac’s novel is so rich because it not only chronicles Lucien’s story but it also captures the tremendous changes erupting around Lucien in his quest. The opening paragraph perfectly foreshadows the tensions in the novel.
At the time when this story begins, the Stanhope press and inking-rollers were not yet in use in small provincial printing-offices. Angoulême, although its paper-making industry kept in contact with Parisian printing, was still using those wooden presses from which the now obsolete metaphor ‘making the presses groan’ originated. Printing there was so much behind the times that the pressmen still used leather balls spread with ink to dab on the characters . . . The ravenous machines of our times have so completely superseded this mechanism that it is necessary to mention this antiquated equipment . . . it has its part to play in this great and trivial story.
This arresting passage describes in breathless fashion the new industrialization of France and its effect on society and individuals. Notice also the way that the last phrase—“this great and trivial story”—so readily captures the gravity of social change as well and the commonplace nature of Lucien’s tale.
Balzac’s novel deals with three themes. First, Lucien, a “great poet” in his provincial town, sets out to make his living by his poetic pen in Paris. Accompanied by his patroness, Madame de Bargeton, he moves to the city only to discover the difficulty of proving his greatness in a place where poets are a dime a dozen and where poetry is not highly valued. When he finds he cannot make a living writing poetry, he discovers that he can make a decent enough living as a hack writer, contributing book reviews and theater reviews to the newspapers. Thus, the second theme of the novel is the conflict between a writer’s commitment to his art and craft—which in this case leads to poverty—and a writer’s ambitious desire for fame and success, which a career in journalism would guarantee. During the years that Balzac wrote the novel, the new journalism in France was evolving, and it that encouraged unscrupulous behavior on the part of journalists as they attempted to make a name for themselves through their articles. Lucien must decide which course to follow: the high calling of poetry and poverty or the fortune of journalism and its unethical behavior. Finally, the third theme the novel takes up is the conflict between the provinces and Paris. As in many later realist and naturalist novels, Paris is the locale where provincials can find opportunity and success. Emma Bovary dreams of moving to Paris, where all her romantic fantasies will be fulfilled. In Zola’s L’Assommoir, Gervaise’s husband hopes to make his fortune in Paris, but the couple’s move to the city end in their utter destitution. In Lucien’s case, Paris turns out not to be what he hoped, and the society in which he moves, deceives and ridicules him. The novel’s title, Lost Illusions, so well describes the fate of Lucien—whose story actually comes to a conclusion in the following novel in the cycle, A Harlot High and Low—and others like him.
Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu. One of the greatest themes of modern literature is time and the individual’s struggle to place itself either within the continuity of the temporal (Henri Bergson) or its struggle against the discontinuous character of moments in time (Gaston Bachelard) is one of its central conflicts. After Freud, individuals no longer needed to consider themselves as creatures defined by physical space; instead, modern humans were defined by time, and the novels of the great Modernist writers captured this new sensibility in numerous ways.
Proust’s monumental classic bridges the gap between the Realism of Flaubert and Balzac and the Symbolism of Baudelaire. Really a series of seven novels, Remembrance of Things Past moves between the continuity of a linear narrative and the discontinuity of a dream. He observed that “a book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices. If we mean to try to understand this self it is only in our inmost depths, by endeavoring to reconstruct it there, that the quest can be achieved.” Over a period of thirteen years, Proust wrote and published four volumes of his masterpiece. Although he likely began writing his epic novel in 1908, the first volume, Swann’s Way, was published in 1913. The second volume, Within a Budding Grove, was published in 1919 and won the Goncourt Prize. Two subsequent volumes—The Guermantes Way (1920-21) and Sodom and Gomorrah (1921)—were the last published in his lifetime. The remaining three volumes—The Captive (1923), The Fugitive (1925), and Time Regained (1927)—were published after his death.
Proust’s journey through time past weaves trance-like through the eccentricities of families, the shortcomings of social class, and the somnolent memories of youth. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin, writing of Proust, declared that “all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one—they are, in other words, special cases . . . The first revealing observation that strikes one is that this great special case of literature at the same time constitutes its greatest achievement of recent decades.” Benjamin proceeds to write that, “the thirteen volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu are the results of an unconstruable synthesis in which the absorption of a mystic, the art of a prose writer, the verve of a satirist, the erudition of a scholar, and the self-consciousness of a monomaniac have combined in an autobiographical work.” Proust’s melancholy and lyrical work indeed ferries the modern self to places where it must reckon with its identity, its development, and its very social existence. Confined to its solitary chambers, the modern individual can craft its own existence only through memory and a reshaping of the past.
Of course, Proust’s narrator is most famous for ingesting the magical little cookie that transports him through his past. “And once I had recognized the taste of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street . . . rose up like the scenery of a theater . . . In that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”
Just as Remembrance of Things Past opens with Time, it ends with a vertiginous meditation of Time:
A feeling of vertigo seized me as I looked down beneath me, yet within me, as though from a height, which was my own height, of many leagues, at the long series of the years.
But at least, if strength were granted me for long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the result were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men first and foremost as occupying a place, a very considerable place compared with the restricted one which is allotted to them in space, a place on the contrary immoderately prolonged—for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch epochs that are immensely far apart, separated by the slow accretion of many, many days—in the dimension of Time.
Albert Camus, The Plague. It’s the quintessential portrait of the French intellectual: a philosopher sitting at a table in a sidewalk café on a Parisian boulevard, a cigarette hanging jauntily from his mouth. More than likely, he is discussing the absurdity of the universe with his friend. After World War II, these two philosophers might be named Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, whose philosophical and literary works provided both a scathing response to the horrors of the war just finished and a challenge to traditional views of the world that explained the prosperity of the postwar years in religious terms of punishment and reward. Sick of the indifference of the world to the forces unleashed by Nazism and other ideologies (including Christianity), Sartre and Camus sought a new way of thinking about human existence. They came to be called existentialists because they believed that existence preceded essence; that is, the way you live your life and the choices you make in your moment-to-moment existence defines you in a fuller and more realistic way than the identity you have inherited and over which you have had no choice.
Camus’ most eloquent statements of his positions can be found in his novels such as The Stranger and The Plague. While each deals with the indifference of the world and an individual’s attempt to create an authentic existence in the face of such indifference, The Plague (1948) is one of the great books of the French tradition.
The novel is set in the Algerian port city of Oran, an ordinary town that is quite unexceptional. Like many other towns, it is a place where “you can get through the days there without trouble, once you have formed habits. And since habits are precisely what our town encourages, all is for the best.” Yet, soon enough, a mysterious pestilence makes its unannounced visit to the town. One evening the doctor, Rieux, ominously feels something soft under his foot and discovers that it is a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. In a few moments he sees another rat, fur wet and blood spurting from its mouth, lurching unsteadily down the street. This ominous beginning establishes a contrast between the presence of a new and mysterious force and the dull and habitual lives of the citizens of Oran. During the course of the novel, various citizens of the town must choose how to explain and how to live in the midst of this plague.
The initial reaction to the advent of the plague is disbelief. How can such a disease come to our town? We are ordinary people, and we have nothing to deserve it. Only when the town is closed off by quarantine do the citizens realize the gravity of the situation, and even then some of them believe that the plague will be short-lived. Eventually, each person “had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.” Many finally realize that “it’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is.” The novel focuses on a small group of the town’s citizens, including Dr. Rieux, who have banded together in “sanitary squads” to help out in the plague.
Why did the plague attack Oran? In a fiery sermon, the town priest, Father Paneloux, offers no comfort, only condemnation. He offers no sympathy for the plight of his fellow townspeople and instead preaches a hellfire and brimstone sermon that lays the existence of the plague squarely on the shoulders of the citizens. Why is the plague attacking them? God is punishing the citizens for their immorality; that’s why. Following the sermon, the citizens, hoping for a morsel of hope from their religious leader, leave the church spiritless and discouraged.
Dr. Rieux, who doesn’t believe in God, is Paneloux’s foil in the novel. In order to survive the plague, individuals must struggle together against the brutal indifference of the plague. The citizens can indeed choose to be for their fellow humans and against whatever reduces the town’s common humanity (in this case, the plague). “. . . since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?” When compared with Paneloux, who initially does not help out with the medical squad and instead waits for God to heal the town in a miraculous fashion, Rieux is heroic because he struggles against the absurdity of the death the plague brings in solidarity with his fellow citizens. In addition, Rieux chooses moment-to-moment to exist in this absurd world, with all its risks, because it makes him free and not determined by a religious dogmatism that implies that God is punishing him for actions he did not commit and over which he has no control.
Ironically, of course, the priest Panleoux falls ill with the plague and almost dies. When he recovers, he preaches a second sermon in which he encourages solidarity against the disease. In this sermon, he includes himself as one of the afflicted. “A yet more noteworthy change was that instead of saying ‘you’ he now said ‘we’.”
Facile interpretations of Camus’s novel often try to turn in into an allegory of Nazism and its advent and attack on Europe. The plague becomes the Nazis, and the citizens of Oran become any ghetto of Jews who die in exile because of the indifference of the world around them. Yet, this is a too-easy and too-hasty reading of the novel. The plague simply represents the brutal and absurd indifference of the world against which humans must everyday fight. Any force that diminishes and humiliates humans is a plague against which individuals must struggle because many such forces are blind, ignorant, and indifferent and rob us of the possibilities for an authentic existence. Camus’ The Plague clearly stands out as one of the great books of the French tradition because of its tenacious articulation of a new philosophy and a new style.
Books mentioned in this column:
Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais
Candide by Voltaire
Essays by Michel de Montaigne
Pensées by Blaise Pascal
L’Assommoir by Emile Zola
Paul and Virginia by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac
À la recherche du temps perdu (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3) by Proust
The Plague by Albert Camus
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.