One April morning in the 1940's in Oran, Algeria, Dr. Rieux, preoccupied with his ill wife's imminent departure to a sanatorium, discovers a dead rat. This unusual event marks the beginning of an epidemic of bubonic plague that will besiege the city until the following February. Over the long ten months Rieux, his acquaintances, friends, colleagues and fellow citizens labor, each in his own way, with the individual and social transformations caused by the all-consuming illness. Separation, isolation, and penury become the common lot of distinct characters whose actions, thoughts and feelings constitute a dynamic tableau of man imprisoned.


As the epigraph makes clear, imprisonment by the plague is a metaphor for other forms of occupation. Nonetheless, the impact of the epidemic is fully rendered, including in comparison to other historic plagues. Together, the epigraph and the body of the novel invite a discussion of literary theories of representation, and particularly, because of the subject matter and its treatment, of the representation of illness and related topics.

Moreover, through the reactions of individual characters and collective elements of society, this great novel explores broader themes of freedom, responsibility, love and death, time and exile, while examining more specifically the duty of the physician, the interactions of the biological, psychological and social aspects of life, the challenge to religious faith by the suffering of innocents, and the importance and limitations of romance, family, and friends.

The strong presence of a narrator who promises to reveal himself only at the end of the "chronicle," and the emphasis on the credentials and sources that enable him to construct an "objective" account of the plague, raise questions about narrative method, voice and perspective. In the end, the reader regrets leaving the newly discovered Rieux in the now free city of Oran. For a very different treatment of similar medical subject matter see Jean Giono's The Horseman on the Roof (see this database).


First published: 1947 (La Peste, Gallimard, Paris). Translated by Stuart Gilbert.



Place Published

Harmondsworth, Middlesex