Summary of Part Four
By the autumn rains, the workers are exhausted. Rieux knows his wife is worsening and feels sorry that he is not with her to help her recover. Tarrou hardly has anything to put into his diary except observations on Cottard, the opportunist and only contented man in town. Tarrou speaks of the oneness that the plague has brought to all kinds of diverse people. Everyone is in great terror of the slightest headache. Tarrou has moved in with Rieux and his mother. They become friends at a time when others are afraid of any kind of relationship for fear of getting the plague from someone.
One evening Cottard and Tarrou go to the opera, Gluck's Orpheus. The cream of Oran society is there, convinced the plague does not strike in an upper-class setting like the opera. In the middle of a duet, however, the singer playing Orpheus falls at the footlights with his arms spread out, and the crowd stampedes to the exit.
Rambert has worked for Rieux but continues to try to get smuggled out of town, and there are a number of futile scenes where he meets with underworld figures. The appointments never work out or are constantly postponed. Finally Rambert gives up and tells Rieux he will stay with him because even if he could get out he would feel ashamed: “I belong here whether I want it or not” (p. 209).
Dr. Castel has been working on an anti-plague serum and tries it for the first time on M. Othon's little boy. The rest of the family has to go into quarantine, while Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou watch the little boy's agony simply prolonged by the serum. Father Paneloux is there too and falls to his knees to pray for the boy's life. Rieux is shaken by the child's painful death and accuses Paneloux as though indicting God, that the child was innocent, not a sinner to be punished. He says he cannot accept a universe where children are tortured.
Paneloux preaches a new sermon. He tells the parishioners that God is incomprehensible and that a child's death is hardest to understand, but it is the ground where we must work out our salvation. It is a time of testing. Paneloux becomes ill but refuses to see a doctor at first because he has declared his trust in God. Rieux sees no plague symptoms but Paneloux becomes weak and dies anyway.
Tarrou finally tells his story to Rieux. He says he came to Oran already with the “plague.” As a young man, he lived with the idea of his innocence. His father was a prosecuting attorney and took him to court at a criminal trial. Tarrou only had eyes for the condemned man: “he was a living human being” (p. 247). He was horrified that the court, and especially his father, wanted to kill the man for some crime. He ran away from home and became a political agitator because “the social order around me was based on the death sentence” (p. 250). The group he joined condoned death also in order to promote a new world order, and so Tarrou comes to realize he has been infected with the social “plague” while he thought he was fighting injustice. He indirectly is responsible for the deaths of others. Everyone is complicit, and so Tarrou concludes, “we all have the plague” (p. 252). He is a pacifist and feels he must fight with Rieux to save lives. The good man is the one who is most aware and does the least damage, trying to be “an innocent murderer” (p. 254). His diary is a quest to learn how to be a saint, a saint without believing in God. The doctor understands him, agreeing that he himself does not aspire to sainthood or heroism; he just wants to be a man. Tarrou and Rieux decide to celebrate their friendship by breaking the rules and going for a swim in the sea together.
Grand finally falls sick, and Rieux cares for him. Grand burns his manuscript, but he recovers, and then, others start to recover. The plague is breaking.
Commentary on Part Four
The death of the child, Jacques Othon, is a climax of the novel, when everyone including the priest, must confront the existence of an evil that seems sanctioned by God. Paneloux makes it into a test of faith and so dies mysteriously as though to affirm he will accept the death sentence as part of God's plan. The cause of his death is never confirmed but understood symbolically as the plague.
Paneloux insists on God's innocence. Tarrou's story is a different journey to acceptance. Tarrou believes that humans are tainted with imperfection, not through original sin, but through ignorance. They are all asleep. It is not enough that humans seem to be under a threat of death from nature; they also agree to kill one another and make it part of their legal system. Tarrou is incensed with the injustice of capital punishment—of the state judging and taking the life of citizens. Camus himself took up the fight against capital punishment in real life and wrote of it in his “Reflections on the Guillotine,” published in 1957.
Tarrou joins some political group to fight for a different world but realizes his group also uses death as a weapon. He equates this innate violence as a “plague” of humankind, insisting all are infected. He wants to be as aware and saintly as possible, like his friend Rieux, without having a concept like God to push him into it. He wants to know humans are capable of virtue on their own, that they can feel compassion for others. This is Camus's main message in the book. He looks for a way to be human, aware, and virtuous. The definition of human is broadened in this story to include clear-eyed awareness, and fair and compassionate treatment of others without the threat of religion or politics.
Text: Camus, Albert, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, Vintage International Books, 1991.