The Plague is usually taken to be an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France during the 1940s, and of the French resistance to it. Although there are obvious reasons for this, it would be a mistake to reduce the novel to this point alone – and certainly a mistake to assign this as the sole intent or initial motivation of its author. Besides, in making such a claim, one isn’t really saying anything very much at all about either the novel or that historical reality, adding nothing new to our understanding of each. And it risks foreclosing other possibilities. Camus even warned against this. ‘In a sense, The Plague is more than a chronicle of the Resistance,’ he wrote in 1955. ‘But certainly it is nothing less.’
At the other extreme The Plague has been treated as a more general, abstract allegory of The Human Condition. This makes the book appear to aspire to some sense of universality. But this is equally problematic. ‘A really absurd work is not universal,’ Camus wrote, in his criticism of Kafka, an author Camus claimed was aspiring to such universality. This is due to Kafka’s religiosity, in which ‘man is freed from the weight of his own life.’ But Camus refused such relief in his own fiction. ‘I am not seeking what is universal, but what is true,’ he wrote. ‘The two may well not coincide.’
Camus never actually wrote or thought in terms of allegory. Incidentally, the same year The Plague was published in France, Northrop Frye, the Canadian literary critic, had his ground breaking study of William Blake, Fearful Symmetry, published in the United States. In that work, Frye called the type of allegory that would later be misapplied to Camus’ novel as ‘merely a set of moral doctrines or historical facts, ornamented to make them easier for simple minds.’ Frye also stated: ‘Hence what is usually called allegory, that is, art the meaning of which points away from itself toward something else which is not art, is a profane abomination.’ Camus would have agreed. In fact, perhaps the only reference to this literary device in his work is in a review published in 1943 – which he wrote at the same time as working on the initial drafts of his plague novel – where he describes allegory as a method to ‘torture’ a text, otherwise unable to ‘defend itself’, into fitting some predetermined and fixed meaning. Allegory is thus predicated upon a certain violence perpetrated upon a text, one which disrupts the unity of a work of fiction and subordinates it to something otherwise non-literary. It is a method for reading and writing that Camus entirely rejected, arguing elsewhere that a work of fiction ought to not be an illustration of some pre-existing set of ideas or representative of a set of external facts.
He did, however, approach literary fiction in terms of symbol – which draws the reader into the work, toward its inner possibilities, while retaining its overall unity. But even here Camus adds his own qualifications. In his essay on Kafka, Camus writes: ‘A symbol is always in general and, however precise its translation, an artist can restore to it only its movement: there is no word-for-word rendering.’ A brief survey of the composition of The Plague will perhaps demonstrate this movement, in order to keep open the metaphoric possibilities of the plague image. It is, after all, such possibilities that arguably make the novel more relevant to the present moment, and not this simplistic ‘word-for-word rendering’ of metaphoric-plague-for-actual-pandemic, which is no different from reducing the novel to being simply an allegory of the Occupation.
Although the first explicit reference in Camus’ notebooks to his writing his plague novel is in April 1941, there is also material in his notes, later incorporated into the novel, going back as early as 1938 – a year before the Second World War began. Camus was already, at this stage – while still in Algeria, where he was born and raised – embarked upon writing his first cycle of work, concerned with the theme of absurdity: The Stranger (a novel), Caligula (a play), and The Myth of Sisyphus (an essay). He was still working on these projects in September 1939, when the war began. He completed The Stranger in May 1940, during the successful German invasion of mainland France. And he completed The Myth of Sisyphus in February 1941 – with this, his first cycle of work was finished. In Sisyphus, Camus drew three conclusions from his experience of the absurd – revolt, freedom, and diversity – which he argued should be the basis for both an ethic and an aesthetic. From this, the direction for his second cycle of work was set: it was going to be on the theme of rebellion.
Within two months of completing this first cycle, even before they were published, Camus began working on this second cycle, starting with a new novel, which would become The Plague. It is important to note that the initial impetus for this work of fiction came out of the internal logic of Camus’ own thinking, based upon the schedule and trajectory established by his having only just completed his previous cycle of work, rather than because of his responding to external events, such as the Second World War. The experiences of the war years – but not only these experiences – would be incorporated into the novel, yes, but it was not the initial intent of the novel to directly depict these experiences, war or otherwise. To do so – and for readers and critics to consider it so – would be to reduce Camus to a form of literary realism which actually contradicts how Camus understood literary fiction to work.
In fact, Camus argued against literary realism in a review-essay published in February 1947, only a few months before The Plague was published in June of that year. In many respects, Camus’ review of Jules Roy’s novel La Vallée Heureuse was also preparing the ground for the reception of his own forthcoming novel. He opens this review by making a sharp distinction: ‘Today’s writers talk about what happens to them. Tolstoi centered War and Peace around the retreat from Moscow, which he himself had not experienced.’ He then elaborates, at length:
There are reasons for this, and they are complex. But, in any case, very few of our writers seem blessed with that innocence which enables them to bring imaginary characters to life, detach themselves from these characters enough to love them truly, and, consequently, make other people love them. This is, after all, because we lack both time and a future, and because we have to hasten to create in the interval between war and revolution. Hence we do what is quickest, which is to report what we have done and what we have seen. And it is true that any great work is, in a way, the account of a spiritual adventure. But generally such an account is suggested and transfigured. Today, we go no further than the account, the document, the “slice of life”, as the Naturalists ignorantly called it. A minimum of preparation, a few strips of bacon, two or three flowers of fluted paper, and the meat is served raw.
Arguing against this impatience in creation, Camus calls instead for a certain artistic restraint.
But this shouldn’t keep us from being clear-sighted and from realising that this new taste for raw meat leads to the loss of what has long been the strength, sometimes the explosive strength, of our literature – I mean a sense of propriety.... Candor is becoming obstreperous, and when everyone embraces it, it becomes a new kind of conformism.... Today, the raw material of experience is provided by men whom no one respects, and their frenzied embraces, called war or revolution. What is the point of restraint? Let the meat bleed, since that is its function.
But this does not alter the fact that art cannot do without restraint, whose very impulses it shares. It does not alter the fact that art lies in the distance that time gives to suffering or to joy.
In the same review-essay Camus argues that this artistic restraint is associated with a sense of ‘style’, which implicitly holds together the formal unity of a work of fiction, separate from experience, but through which we can retrieve our sense of time and the future.
These claims are expanded several years later, in a section of The Rebel titled “Rebellion and Art”. ‘Art is the activity that exalts and denies simultaneously,’ Camus writes here:
“No artist tolerates reality,” says Nietzsche. That is true, but no artist can get along without reality. Artistic creation is a demand for unity and a rejection of the world. But it rejects the world on account of what it lacks and in the name of what it sometimes is.
In defending this ‘demand for unity’, Camus brings into sharper focus the argument from his Jules Roy review. Regarding ‘style’, for example, Camus states:
By the treatment that the artist imposes on reality, he declares the intensity of his rejection. But what he retains of reality in the universe that he creates reveals the degree of consent that he gives to at least one part of reality – which he draws from the shadows of evolution to bring it to the light of creation. In the final analysis, if the rejection is total, reality is then completely banished and the result is a purely formal work. If, on the other hand, the artist chooses, for reasons often unconnected with art, to exalt crude reality, the result is then realism.
Art, in other words, results in part from reaching a balance between these temptations toward fully rejecting (formalism) and fully submitting (realism) to reality. The space thereby created is one in which new possibilities may be imagined. This balance may be violated by the artist during the act of creation. But it may equally be violated by the reader during the act of reading. In such instances, these possibilities are foreclosed and the novel ceases to be.
Of course, these ideas were written after Camus had largely completed writing The Plague. To argue that they are ideas which guided the composition of that novel would require Camus to have also considered them prior to, as well as during, his drafting of that novel. As it happens, this is also the case. In 1939, several months before the war began, Camus wrote a review of Ignazio Silone’s novel, Bread and Wine. Camus was at the time also working on The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. In this review, he argues, ‘there is no revolutionary work without artistic qualities.’
This may seem paradoxical. But I believe that if our time teaches us anything on this score, it is that revolutionary art, if it is not to lapse into the basest forms of expression, cannot do without artistic importance. There is no happy medium between vulgar propaganda and creative inspiration, between what Malraux calls “the will to prove” and a work like Man’s Fate. . . .
This argument against a work of fiction being reduced to a mere description of experience – ‘the basest forms of expression’ – is repeated in 1943, in an essay Camus wrote, called “Intelligence and the Scaffold”, for a journal that was collecting together essays on the theme: “Problems of the Novel”. The Stranger had already been published by this stage, and he was working on The Plague. Here Camus argues that the role of intelligence in the field of literary creation should be completely focused on artistic problems, concerned primarily with balancing tone and ideas.
On the one hand, what breaks this balance is too much emphasis going toward empty formalism in art, what he here calls form for ‘form’s sake’. This would be predicated on the absence of ideas. On the other hand, the balance can be broken by going too far in the other direction, toward naturalism or realism, which he feels ruins the tone of the work by not being able to go ‘beyond description.’ These are, of course, the ‘two heresies’ of formalism and realism that Camus would later write about in The Rebel, but here we can see them appear in an earlier iteration, at the very moment when Camus was already occupied with the artistic problems thrown up during the early process of composing the initial drafts of The Plague.
The source for the initial sketch of this understanding of artistic problems can be located in Camus’ notebooks, from 1938, prior to his review of Ignazio Silone’s novel, in a long note on the relation between an artist and the work of art, the ‘global experience of an artist’, their thought and life, and the work of art which is produced out of this experience. ‘This relationship is wrong when the work gives the whole of this experience surrounded by a fringe of literature,’ Camus wrote. ‘It is right when the work of art is a section cut out of his experience, the facet of a diamond in which the gem’s inner luster is reflected but not exhausted.’ A few years later, this section from Camus’ notebook was revised and included in the final part of The Myth of Sisyphus, where he outlines his aesthetic, in rebellion against his experience of the absurd. This calls for a certain detachment from that experience, the better to reflect upon it, but also to open it up to other possibilities, beyond that experience – these other possibilities being thereby incorporated into the formal unity of the work of art that is produced.
It is against this intellectual background, the internal logic of Camus’ own thinking, which established the initial schedule and trajectory of Camus’ setting out in 1941, two months after completing the first cycle of his works, to write a new novel – neither wholly realistic, nor entirely formal; not allegorical, but symbolic – on the theme of rebellion.