Book Rec: Camus’ The Plague | An enduring lesson of resilience, caring, and compassion in the face of relentless adversity
AIAMC Member: William John Yost, MD, FACP, VP for Medical Education and Research, UnityPoint Health -Des Moines
I think I have always turned to reading during times of crisis. I enjoy reading broadly to exercise other parts of my brain yet I also find that I frequently pick up a book simply to briefly escape from reality. Yet reading to better understand something, perhaps place it into context or gain perspective, when faced with something I’ve never experienced or understand imperfectly brings to my recommended (re) read of The Plague by Albert Camus.
The Plague, published in 1947, is set in the French Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s. A native son of French Algerian, Camus drew heavily upon historical sources describing outbreaks of plague in Oran from the 16th century until his present day. The description of the first signs of illness and its subsequent development into a raging epidemic are utterly realistic and credible. The story is told through a narrator who remains unknown until the end of the book – whose identity I suspect many of you will anticipate as you read the book.
Camus’ character development is rich and credible; in fact, there are enough significant characters you may want to keep a few notes at hand that link names to their occupations and a few characteristics to place them in context. One of the principal characters is a physician, Dr. Bernard Rieux. Dr. Rieux diagnoses and treats some of the first victims of the mysterious illness, and as the epidemic gains momentum, he is the first to warn the authorities and then beg for intervention. The bureaucracy is first unwilling to listen, then slow to respond (sound familiar?) and the epidemic rapidly becomes uncontrolled. I found some of the descriptions of Dr. Rieux’s care of his patients, both plague patients and otherwise, to be among the most compelling passages, as he embodies care and compassion, initial uncertainty, growing anxiety, and the determination to use the best available evidence and treatment to relieve a seemingly hopeless condition. His care of the ordinary patients rang true for me, further lending to the realism of the novel.
Another compelling figure, and in some respects the foil to Dr. Rieux, is the aging priest Father Paneloux, a learned Jesuit and parish priest who sees the plague through the prism of his Faith. At one point toward the end of the novel, Paneloux and Rieux find themselves at the bedside of a dying boy – both passionately dedicated, both helpless in the face of relentless illness and death, and both complementary and yet simultaneously opposed to one another. In some respects, that part of the novel is, for me, the most memorable.
Many consider The Plague to be an existentialist classic, a label Camus himself rejected, as it portrays the ultimate powerlessness of individuals to affect their destiny. However, it seemed to me to be far more than that. In The Plague, I saw resilience, caring, and compassion in the face of relentless adversity, and in that an enduring lesson for us all.
It may be a little “too soon” for some, but I think you’re going to enjoy this one.
Brief Bio - Albert Camus
Born in French Algeria in 1913, Camus achieved considerable fame as a philosopher, writer, and journalist. Born to poor parents, he studied philosophy at the University of Algiers. Finding himself in Paris when the Germans invaded France in 1940, he joined the French Resistance and served as editor-in-chief of an outlawed newspaper for the remainder of the war, and on its conclusion, he became something of a celebrity and a political activist. A leftist, he rejected totalitarianism of all kinds, and he joined the segment of the left that deeply opposed the growth of the Soviet Union. However, for most people in modern times, it was as a writer that he made his mark. His novels included The Stranger, The Plague, and The Myth of Sisyphus, among others. His writings have been often described as being existentialist, though Camus himself rejected that term throughout his lifetime. Perhaps more accurately, Camus’ writings contributed to the rise of absurdism, a reaction against nihilism. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957.
Brief Bio - William J. Yost, MD
Chief Academic Officer at UnityPoint Health-Des Moines, John provides direction and oversight of UME, GME and CME. As the DIO, he engages in clinical and educational research and teaches clinical medicine and principles of quality and patient safety. He is a long-time Iowan, getting his BS and DVM (Veterinary Medicine) at Iowa State University before deciding to get his human medicine degree (MD) at the University of Iowa. He completed his GME training in Internal Medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and continues to practice general internal medicine.