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  4. The Plague by Albert Camus

In class, our teacher often asks stimulating questions, usually open-ended, to encourage a greater analysis of the text. For instance, he asked us to consider in what ways we get sick? What are the meanings we can derive from sickness and suffering? What lessons can we learn? And so on.

As I reflected on his questions, I realized the parallels between the events in The Plague and the current pandemic. The plague devastates the town of Oran, where the story is set. It also has a dire impact on those not directly afflicted by the disease. As the town’s citizens struggle to cope, there‘s a collective loss of control and a sense of urgency to live in the moment. We see this playing out now in real life. We observe how an outbreak can provoke a shared panic and fear among the masses. And we witness how much we have in common with others as we learn to cope with isolation and uncertainty.

The Plague also offers a compelling allegory, not only for life in Nazi-occupied France during Camus’s time, but the societal ‘plagues’ and hardships we as humans face in our daily lives. For example, social injustices and inequalities such as racism and sexism, to name just two complex issues.

The book underscores the media's decisive role in shaping and guiding public opinion and how fear-inducing stories lead to mass hysteria. One of the main characters states at one point that “gossip exaggerates everything.” In contrast, we have seen present-day media coverage that is responsible. We have also witnessed the damage caused by the surge of imbalanced reporting and fake news about the pandemic.

One aspect that is indicative of the period in which the book was written is its male-centered narrative and perspective, with all the main characters being men. Though Camus does include female characters, with the most significant or relevant ones being Dr. Rieux’s wife, his mother, and the French journalist (Rembart’s lover), he plays directly into concepts of power dynamics and societal biases. The women are always defined around the relationship with the male characters and can be considered peripheral at best.

The citizens of Oran are represented as a small, enclosed society. The choice to depict them in such a way leads the reader to experience a greater sense of tragedy, drama, and perhaps even suffocation as the events unfold further in the novel.

All in all, I thought this to be an incredibly eye-opening and compelling read, made even more fascinating by the parallels it appears to have with the world’s situation today. I would recommend this book to anyone intrigued by these similarities or who would simply enjoy a book that talks about such topics.

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