Scripture knows something about suffering and death. Many biblical characters, like the trapped residents of Oran, were faced with death while questioning God’s actions. “Some were tortured…others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword” (Hebrews 11:35–37). Throughout its pages, humans (like Job’s friends) seek to explain the human problem by positing worldviews, but ultimately fail to adequately understand the human experience.
In 1947, the French Nobel Laureate Albert Camus wrote the novel The Plague. The fictional story is set in the city of Oran in French Algeria. Oran, as actually happened many times in its history, experienced a terrible plague and the town was eventually quarantined and sealed off. The occupants, some residents and others simply passing through, suddenly find themselves trapped in the town with no escape and the prospect of death encroaching. The allegorical narrative centers around several main characters, each of whom represent a specific worldview. The cast includes an atheistic physician who, through his medicinal knowledge, seeks to find a cure; a suicidal and delusional introvert whose mood ebbs and flows with changing news; an educated civil employee who overcomes personal disappointment to organize volunteers in the community during the long period of tragedy; a visiting Parisian journalist who desperately misses his wife; and a respected Jesuit priest whose indomitable spirit is supported by his fidelity and devotion to God and others.
Each character tries, in his own way, to overcome the horrors of the plague, only to find suffering unavoidable. The physician spends the entirety of the novel attempting to alleviate pain and suffering but realizes that he is fighting a losing battle. When the plague worsens, the eccentric introvert attempts suicide, then tries to become friendly, then ends up reverting back to his delusions and finally begins randomly shooting at people to hasten death. The stoic civil servant, though trustworthy and intelligent, eventually contracts the dreaded disease. The journalist plans a foolhardy escape over the barricades to return to his wife but ultimately decides to remain in the city as he develops a sense of cultural connection. The priest believes that the disease is the result of divine judgment. Though he personally cares for the infirmed and encourages the other characters to trust in God, in the end the priest succumbs to the plague and dies. Death comes sporadically as each finally accepts the futility and randomness of life.
Camus, an early postmodern, uses these characters to promote the idea of the absurdity of existence. Each character represents some form of modernity, either attempting to find meaning through science, self-improvement, human ingenuity, or cultural systems. Even the priest, representing religion and faith, is at first praised for offering hope, but ultimately cannot reconcile a transcendent, omnipotent God with human suffering. God cannot understand pain and death because God cannot suffer and die. In the end, the only success is that of the civil servant, who, by embracing the human spirit, experiences some small semblance of happiness. According to Camus, humanity must stop looking for outside help through theism, science, or political theory. It must find its own way. Camus’ critique of finding joy and meaning within a structure is correct. Every attempted human explanation fails to ultimately address the true problem—inescapable death.