Summary of Part One
The bubonic plague hit the town of Oran, Algeria, in the 1940s. Oran is an ugly coastal city where everyone is bored trying to get rich and cultivating habits to take up their time. In the evenings, people gather in cafés or stroll on the boulevards or relax on their balconies. It is a hot town and not a comfortable place in which to be sick or die. The narrator of this story (revealed later to be Dr. Rieux) has three sources of data to draw on about the history of this plague: what he saw, the accounts of other eyewitnesses, and documents that came into his hands.
On April 16, Dr. Bernard Rieux leaves his surgery and steps on a dead rat on the landing. He tells the concierge of the building, M. Michel, to remove it. He sees a living rat in his apartment building fall over and spurt blood from its mouth. Dr. Rieux is getting ready to send his wife who has been ill for over a year to a sanitarium in the mountains. Meanwhile, as he makes his round of patients in the city, he keeps seeing dead rats. As Rieux says goodbye to his wife at the train station, his mother is arriving to take care of his house while his wife is gone. Rieux runs into M. Othon, the magistrate. They discuss the rats.
A journalist, Raymond Rambert, calls on Dr. Rieux, explaining he is from a Paris newspaper, doing a story on sanitary conditions for the Arab population. Rieux asks if he will be allowed to tell the truth, because the conditions are not good. Rieux does not want to furnish information that will be distorted. On his rounds, Rieux meets Jean Tarrou, a neighbor, who is staring at a dying rat.
The concierge, M. Michel, falls ill, leaning on the arm of the Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux. The streets and hallways are strewn with dead rats. Panic sweeps the town as thousands of rats are collected and burned.
Rieux responds to an emergency call from one of his poor patients, Joseph Grand, a government clerk. Grand shows him a neighbor's room where he had cut down a suicidal man trying to kill himself by hanging. The man's name is Cottard, and he becomes hysterical when he learns that Rieux will have to report the suicide attempt to the police. Rieux leaves Grand in charge of watching the man.
Rieux attends M. Michel as he is violently ill and dies of a mysterious ailment with high fever, sores on his mouth, swollen lymph nodes, and thirst. His death ends the first period of portents and begins the period of panic.
Rieux, the narrator, often refers to the journal Jean Tarrou kept of the plague as it developed in Oran. Tarrou's journal is noted for its objective understatement of events. Tarrou records gossip and character studies, as of the old man who enjoys spitting on cats in the street from his balcony. Tarrou notes that the old man is unhappy when all the cats disappear suddenly. A rich man is upset to find dead rats in his three-star hotel.
Rieux wants to have new cases put into isolation wards, but Dr. Richard, the head of the Medical Association, says that is a matter for the Prefect. The Prefect hesitates. The newspapers are silent about these cases. Dr. Rieux and Dr. Castel know it is the plague but understand that the public must not be told until the tests are conclusive. Grand's job as clerk is to start recording the number of deaths per day. After the death toll reaches thirty a day, the Prefect proclaims the plague and closes the town.
Commentary on Part One
The narrator, Dr. Rieux, using his own memory, other eyewitnesses, and the diary of Jean Tarrou, tells the story of the bubonic plague in Oran, on the coast of Algeria. The tale is told as though a real event, but it is fictional. The story is told in progressive stages. It is divided into five parts, like a five-act play. These are both the physical markers of the turns of the disease, and the reaction of the population that is reluctant to acknowledge the serious nature of the malady. Though the account is understated and avoids sensationalism, the narrator tells the gruesome symptoms of bubonic plague and the terrible way the patients die.
This section introduces all the main characters who represent different types of men and their ways of coping with life and death. Grand is the honest self-effacing government clerk, and Cottard is hinted to be a murderer on the run who takes advantage of the plague to hide. Rieux is a conscientious doctor who cares about his patients and who has his own personal suffering,since his wife has been sent away to a sanitarium andis dying probably of tuberculosis. The officials, such as the Prefect, are in denial of the serious nature of what is happening, waiting as long as possible to proclaim the plague which means closing off the town to the outside world.
Tarrou's diary is significant because he not only notes characters and events, but also his philosophical reactions to the plague. Rieux, who will become a close friend of Tarrou's, has the depth to appreciate his moral insights and to engage in dialogue with him on the meaning of these gruesome deaths. Even in this early part of the story, the narrator becomes philosophical in his background material on the history of plague. The plague becomes an allegory or metaphor of the condition of human life in general: “plagues and wars take people equally by surprise” (p. 37). The people are never ready for plague or for death that “rules out any future . . . they fancied themselves free” (p. 37).
Humans are vulnerable. They believe in the future and in love and morality. No matter whether they are virtuous or criminals, however, they will all die, and they are never prepared for it, fooling themselves that life will go on. In the course of the story, we see men, women, and innocent children dying without mercy at the hand of the plague, often personified as a cruel and tricky opponent that cannot be outwitted. Even the most religious person (such as Father Paneloux) will have a hard time justifying the plague as the visitation of a loving God. Rieux and his friend Tarrou are not religious and learn how to live with the death sentence over their heads in a philosophical acceptance of the human condition.
Text: Camus, Albert, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, Vintage International Books, 1991.