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Learning in a time of pestilence



In times of trouble many people seek consolation in books, but I was still surprised (and flattered) to be asked, here in Greece, if I intended to write a book about COVID-19. No, I don’t, was my answer, mainly because I don’t feel at all equal to the task. I’m sure, however, that many books will appear quite soon.

Illustration Chris Johnston

Margaret Atwood, always one for dystopia, has already written a piece about her self-isolation activities, for example. And the 21st century certainly needs a great work. Daniel Defoe wrote Journal of the Plague Year in the 18th century, Mary Shelley produced The Last Man in the 19th, and Albert Camus, on the way to his Nobel Prize, published La Peste/The Plague in 1947.

The next surprise came in the shape of an email from a very ex-student in Victoria. Do you remember teaching The Plague to our class? The mists of time were more like an old London pea-souper fog, but they eventually parted, and I recalled that I have taught Camus’ novel twice, at two different schools. But the days of the blithe, heedless 25-year-old are long gone, together with any memory of the lessons, so I can’t think now that I taught it very well.

The question, however, goaded me into action, so I dusted off my ancient paperback copy of The Plague, bought in long-ago Australia for 70 cents. (Those were the days!) A contemporary in Melbourne dragged her copy out as well, while an Athenian friend thought re-reading this particular book at this particular time was an extraordinary thing to be doing.

What turned out to be extraordinary, the Melburnian and I agreed, was the familiarity of the subject matter, and the routines that Camus makes the authorities of the plague-ridden Algerian town Oran put in place: the quarantine, the isolation hospitals, the attempts to develop a vaccine, the volunteer health workers, and the way in which funerals were conducted in haste. Then there was the idea that the plague was ‘the flail of God,’ and even mention of ‘the flattening of the curve.’

The Plague is often thought of as an allegory for Vichy France, because Camus began the book during the German occupation, and was active in the Resistance. But the novel is far more than that, and shows, quite brilliantly and through a variety of characters, the complexity of human nature. Oran was a town dedicated to the making of money, but commerce died with the plague, as has happened today, and people reacted in various ways.

Many so-called ordinary people endured: the would-be suicide Cottard finds consolation in the group ordeal. Others made sacrifices: the stranded Rambert eventually ends his attempts to leave the city and stays to help the afflicted. Camus himself takes his stand against conformity, compliance, hypocrisy, the belief in dogma, and cowardice, and has his narrator, Dr Rieux, state simply that ‘the only means of fighting a plague is common decency.’ In his case, he adds, this means doing his job.


'Then she expressed the view that perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic is the pause the world needed, an opportunity to take stock, and to do better in future. I hope it is, but we need to remember that Dr Rieux’s final thoughts centred on the fragility of joy, for the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.'


The novel also examines the problem of suffering via the characters of both Rieux, who can only diagnose, not cure, and Father Paneloux, a champion of Christian doctrine, who preaches a fiery sermon during the plague’s early stages: ‘Calamity has come upon you, my brethren… and you deserved it.’

A softening occurs after he witnesses the agonising death of a child, and this is reflected in his language: you becomes we, in a tacit acknowledgement that the plague is everybody’s business. Father Paneloux dies, remaining true to his belief that it is illogical for a priest to consult a doctor.

The ex-student kept in touch, and let me know that ‘our’ school has closed for a term. Then she expressed the view that perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic is the pause the world needed, an opportunity to take stock, and to do better in future.

I hope it is, but we need to remember that Dr Rieux’s final thoughts centred on the fragility of joy, for the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good. And then there is the old asthma patient’s statement. The plague is ‘just life, no more than that.’ Still, we must also always remember that Camus believed that such times show us that there is more to admire in people than to despise.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, COVID-19, The Plague, Albert Camus, plague fiction



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Existing comments

I am presently reading the Plague which I read years ago . Well worth the read . I agree with the comments . Given that the lockdown has only been a short 6 weeks the question is what resilience has our population to isolation . I also suggest reading Seneca' Letter from a stoic ( penguin paperback)

terence duff | 04 May 2020  

Your students were privileged to have you as their teacher, Gillian. Great the deficit that so few are exposed to classic literature and its enduring relevance in schools and even tertiary institutions today.

John RD | 04 May 2020  

Gillian, You have prompted me to see if the book by Camus is still in print.It sounds like compulsory reading in this surreal time.

Gavin O'Brien | 04 May 2020  

Thanks for your interesting and reflective article Gillian, from which we learn that history repeats itself, just as we were starting to believe our invulnerability to something as old fashioned as a plague. The fears that it engenders! While turning some people to guns and food hoarding, for the vast majority it has rekindled long lost caring attitudes and gratefulness for the smaller and simpler things of life. I’m not sure whether it would be appropriate to use a Keating like expression and say it was ‘the plague we had to have’ or simply agree with your friend that it was at least the pause the world needed. I guess if it has a sobering ‘Ash Wednesday like effect’ on our lives and excesses, we could well conclude that at least this ill wind blew some good. But of course this first world response would not be appropriate for those nations of the poor and undernourished.

John Whitehead | 05 May 2020  

It is many years since I have read The Plague and had always regarded it as a book against Nazism rather than a physical disease. Thanks for clearing this up.

Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 05 May 2020  

It is a strange thing to know that this period of "plague" or virus - comes in the year 2020 - when most of us it seems were joking just months ago about it being the year of clarity - the promise of 20:20 vision. And in ironic ways - as you outline for us here Gillian - we find ourselves connected to the people of centuries back into the past via the diarists and writers who observed the progress of the plagues of those times - or who - like Geraldine Brooks - imagined one of those times - a real village cutting itself off in isolation. And over it all a kind of unreality. A friend's father passes away with the virus in Teaneck NJ - 86 - in an assisted living facility - lungs already long affected by asbestos. A younger cousin passes away in Phoenix AZ - the virus is unmentioned. Yesterday, according to a slight relaxation of the shutdown we travelled into the nearby city of Newcastle NSW - a first visit in nearly two months to big brother-in-law (a non-smoker but with stage IV lung cancer) and his wife - her 71st birthday. No hugs, kisses - sitting at distance - and then a knock at the door. We left - as others (next-door neighbours) stood aside till our exit - farewells from a distance... And I have a vague memory of reading Camus' The Plague, too, with a class. A memory of unseen horrors stalking the city is about all that I retain - thanks Gillian for this refreshing.

Jim KABLE | 05 May 2020  

Very ironicaly I read this novel for the first time while on holiday in New Zealand in early December. Little could I have imagined that in 6 months time some version of it would come to pass. It has much to teach us and Camus does it so well. I agree that this might just be the time for the world to pause and rest The environment will surely benifit . I am not sure the human race in all its drive to get to a place that even it is not sure of will take that time. We can only hope

geoff duke | 05 May 2020  

Eugene Ionesco's play, "Rhinoceros", makes for rich comparison with Camus' novel, particularly at the allegorical level.

John RD | 05 May 2020  

I think it important to emphasise that, in Australia at least, COVID-19 has, extremely fortunately, not reached plague proportions. There have been some lamentable deaths, mostly in the older age group, but nothing comparable in scale to the UK or USA. I am acquainted with some extremely foolish and inconsiderate people who are not socially distancing. This I abhor. There was an excellent 4 Corners program on the ABC yesterday about the doctors and nurses at the forefront of the preventative measures put into place in case the situation did reach plague proportions. Fortunately it did not but those health professionals were inspiring. You raise an interesting question, Gillian as to whether we can learn something from past literature to help us cope with the present. I would suggest that depends on the literature and whether it speaks to you, just like music, dance or drama. The Plague did not speak to me all those years ago so I shall not be re-reading it. Oh, it was a classic no doubt, but it didn't speak to me.

Edward Fido | 05 May 2020  

Thank you for a most interesting article Gillian. I am not sure that i want to read about any plague at the moment as i hear enough on the news. I think it is true that lessons can be learned from history and that human nature has not changed but i find it interesting that the language has changed and that using ‘pandemic’ and ‘Covid-19’ as well as all the new social vocabulary makes it more scientific and less individual. I wonder how resilient we will be as a society because life will certainly have changed.

Maggie | 06 May 2020  

Well written. Hoping this will pass sooner than we hope

Stathis T | 07 May 2020  

Thanks for an article that will send me to my bookshelf to find my ancient copy. When I read it at the age of 22 I didn’t see beyond the World War II analogy. Time for another look.

Juliet | 08 May 2020  

I too studied this in a course on French existentialism. Amid a list of bleak texts, this stood out as having a kind of optimism. You may not understand the absurdity of this world, but you can DO and, as REiux does, do for others. Voltaire ends Candide with the maxim "we have to cultivate our garden" - usually taken to mean working to ameliorate the world we live in. The Little Prince of Saint-Exupery accepts responsibility for what he loves and has learned is fragile. Passivity is not a valid response. Gillian, my thanks for lifting Camus, The Plague and my hero Rieux out of my memory bank. PS to the editor: I think I may have half finished a previous e-mail. Please ignore it.

mary ellen | 08 May 2020  

I was delighted but - more than that - bowled over to see John RD commending both Camus and Ionesco. Wonders never cease!

Michael Furtado | 19 May 2020  

MF: I was more than a little surprised quite recently to hear one of my sons and some of his third-year university friends discussing Camus and Ionesco. When I inquired about their interest, I was both annoyed and impressed: annoyed, because they were venting a need for release from the boredom of a politically correct "environmental" assignment set on a major text for the term, "Jaws" - they done a film analysis of it in Year 9 of secondary school; favourably impressed, however, because of the reasons they gave for reading Camus and Ionesco, on their own initiative. Among these reasons was their recognition of an increasingly "surrealist" sense of attitudes and events manifest in today's public life and its avalanche of media coverage; also, the need to develop an "existential" moral, social and political perspective on them that freely affirmed the possibility of "normality" over absurdity as well as a shared sense of what "normality" is, which included action based on what is,to quote one of them, "real, and good." They also recognised the worlds of both "The Plague" and "Rhinoceros" as "worlds in crisis", analogous to our own, and calling for responses that affirm meaning; and the importance of literature as a vehicle that can transport it. One of the group mention Kafka's "The Trial" and "Metamorphosis" - further music to my ears! Encouraging, no? But perhaps what should really be of surprise - or should I say alarm? - is the rate at which such authors are disappearing from the recommended reading lists of schools and even universities - and not just because they are "dead white males."

John RD | 16 June 2020  

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