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“Through a core of characters, Camus describes their fear, their confusion, their isolation from the loved ones and the outside world, their self-sufficiency, their compassion, and their ultimately inherent humanism as a metaphor for existence.” (Tony Bing)
Rieux, one of the main heroes of The Plague, is a doctor. He is one of the first heroes that notice the spread of the plague: “inside the room a word was echoing still; the plague.” (Camus 36) Doctor knows about the disease, but does not run away to escape it, he wants authorities to close the diminish the spread of it: “That being so, it has small importance whether you call it a plague or a some rare kind of fever. The important thing is to prevent its killing of half the population of this town.” (Camus 44) Rieux stays, faces his fear of death, and stays altruistic to fill the duty of being a doctor. The doctor patiently fights the plague, but is often confused about his duty: he, as the doctor, is supposed to save people, but in the case of plague, he just has a chance to isolate them from the healthy ones, and record their death. “Rieux had nothing to look forward to but a long sequence of such scenes, renewed again and again. Yes, plague, like abstraction, was monotonous; perhaps only one factor changed, and … deploring precisely the sole alleviation Rieux could then experience.” (Camus 76-77) Yet even though the disease is taking a victory over him every time, the doctor does not stop trying, and helping people.
The suffering of the city is not only source of heartache for the doctor – he is longing for his loved wife outside the city. Rieux is separated from his wife; she is sick and dieing in hospital about 100 miles from Oran. “Rieux told him that his wife was under treatment in a sanatorium some distance from the townâ€¦ The great thing was that his wife should recover.” (Camus 69) The doctor longs for her but does not voice it, as he does not want to burden others. For example, Rambert is talking about his loved one all the time, but it is Tarrou who reveals to Rambert that Rieux has a wife: ” I suppose you don’t know that Rieux’s wife is in a sanatorium, a hundred miles or so away.” (Camus 136)
Camus uses the character of Rieux to show that a person does not need to be Christian to help others. There is something noble about this character. Rieux loves the people of the city, he loves them, just as his mother and friends. “At that moment he knew what his mother was thinking, and that she loved him. But he knew, too, that to love someone means relatively little; or, rather, that love is never strong enough to find the words befitting it.” (Camus 236) The doctor does not talk about his work, instead he never stops moving and healing. He is so altruistic that we do not even know if this doctor faces fear for his own life during the spread of plague in the city, all we know is that he does not want the deadly disease to spread outside the city, as that may cause more deaths.
Tarrou is an outsider in Oran. He observes the development of plague and the mood of the city with genuine objectivity, yet till the very end of the book the author tells us very little about the character himself. Tarrou is also a humanist. He believes in the value of human life, and is willing to face fear for his own life in order to help others. He does not long for any loved ones outside the city as the only close person he has – his mother has died before. Tarrou is also the hero who is not confused by the spread of plague in the city. The man feels he has already experienced the disease, as his perception of plague is much wider than that of other people: “I learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others killâ€¦Yes, I’ve been ashamed ever since; I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace.'(Camus 206)
Rambert is the character in the plague that can be defined by longing for the loved one outside the plague stricken city. “The truth is that she and I have been together only short time, and we suite each other perfectly. All I wanted to know was whether you couldn’t possibly give me a certificate that says that I do not have not got this damn disease.” (Camus 72) He misses his wife in Paris and is willing to do anything to get to her. Yet the altruism of others in fighting the plague helps Rambert to learn self-sufficiency. He realizes that even though he misses his wife, he is not the only one. Rieux misses his wife too. He changes and calls Rieux asking: “Would you agree to my working with you till I find some way of getting out of the town?” (Camus 137) Rambert transforms though the suffering of Plague – from an eccentric egoist, he becomes a humanist – who cares about life of humanity.
A crucial character and just a Rambert a dynamic character of the book is Father Paneloux. At first Father Paneloux condemns the people of the city as sinners and tells them that they are hopeless and must repent: “For plague is the flail of God, and the world his threshing-floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff” (Camus 81. He perceives the plague as a punishment God sent to the people for their present life style. Yet after witnessing the death of an innocent child, father’s opinion changes, as he cannot think of a sin the child could have done to receive such a punishment. Father is confused, his faith is seriously challenged, and he delivers a sermon telling his congregation to trust the mysterious work of God because otherwise you must give up all faith. He starts actively participating in fighting the disease and is not afraid to die to save the people of his town. ” When an innocent child loses his eyes, a Christian should lose his faith, or consent to having his eyes destroyed. Paneloux declines to lose his faith, and he will go through with it to the end.” (Camus 187)
Humanism is a system of thought that centers on humans and their values, capacities, and worth (dictionary.com). Plague is a highly infectious, usually fatal, epidemic disease; a pestilence (dictionary.com). Camus brings humanism and plague together. Through Dr. Rieux, Tarrou, Rambert, and Father Paneloux show that the world still has hope. These people let their humanism prevail, they overcame their fear, confusion, longing for the loved ones, they become self-sufficient and compassionate to help the plague stricken city.
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