The Plague Author/Context
On January 4, 1960, the car Albert Camus was driving to Paris crashed, killing Camus instantly and robbing the world of an author who had won the Nobel Prize just three years before. Camus was forty-six when he died--young for a writer--and most likely would have continued to write important books for many years to come. He had the first draft of a new novel in his briefcase when he died. Camus' death was a great tragedy for his readers, who found in his books both beautiful writing and serious discussions of human freedom, social responsibility, and the search for happiness in a world that Camus believed ended, inescapably, with death. "I do not like to believe that death opens onto another life," he wrote. "For me it is a closed door." (Rhein 4).
Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria, on the northwest coast of Africa. Oran, the setting for The Plague, is a port city in this country. Though he spent much of his adult life in France, Camus was a child of the Mediterranean climate, where life was full of sensual pleasures like swimming in the warm sea or basking in the afternoon sun. The pleasures, and torments, of weather and the physical environment are often highlighted in Camus' novels.
His father died when Camus was young, and the family--Albert, his mother, his grandmother, his uncle, and his older brother--lived in a one-room apartment in the city of Algiers. Camus' intelligence was recognized early, and he made it to the University of Algiers, where he studied literature and philosophy. In the midst of his studies, however, Camus contracted tuberculosis, a disease that resurfaced throughout his life. He was eventually forced to withdraw from the university and soon turned his energies to writing.
Camus' work with newspapers and theater groups, which was both political and experimental, nurtured his ideas, and throughout his life Camus filled notebooks with notes that eventually evolved into the novels and essays for which he is famous. His first published work was a book of essays in 1937, and he continued to publish until his death. Camus' most famous works include The Stranger (1946), The Fall (1957), The Myth of Sisyphus (1955), and The Plague (1947). First published in French, The Plague has since been translated into sixteen languages.
All of Camus' novels are part art and part philosophy. One of the most admired qualities of Camus' philosophy is that while it does not acknowledge a God, it is still very hopeful. The writer said in an interview in 1951: "When I seek to discover what is most fundamental in myself it is a taste for happiness that I find... There is an invincible sunshine at the heart of my work" (Cruickshank 24). The world did lose a bit of its sunny innocence for Camus, however, with the arrival of World War II. Camus worked with the underground newspaper Combat during the Nazi occupation of France, and it has been pointed out that the plague's infestation of Oran might be compared to the Nazis' seize of France.
Camus is often mentioned along with John-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett as a writer who succeeded in capturing the absurdities that define the life of modern men and women. His writing will continue to interest readers as long as random cruelties--disease, hunger, the death of promising young writers--continue to afflict our world.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Cruickshank, John. Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Phein, Phillip, ed. Albert Camus. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1989.