The Real Plague
Although never given permission to kill, by supernatural or natural means, man has reserved for himself the right to kill other men. This self-imposed right has been put into use in our civilizations and countries. Whether train of logic is offered or not, murder is very difficult to justify. As existentialists believe, “honesty with oneself” cannot be compromised in any shape or form. Why, then, does man murder? Perhaps man tries to use the excuse of good intentions to escape the responsibility for his actions. In Camus, The Plague, Jean Tarrou dares to go against the idea of men having the right to kill other men. He represents a small part of the general public, in both the novel and in real life. While most of the character development is based on the direct conflict with the physical pestilence, Tarrou takes on a more powerful type of plague as well as this corporeal epidemic; his goal is not only of combating the plague which physically robs men of life, but to suppress the plague which ravages mens hearts, specially his own.
To start a task force, one needs people. When Rieux and Tarrou converse, they discuss who to put into the task force. Rieux suggests that maybe Jean should consider using some of the prisoners in the jail to work against the plague. After dealing with plague-stricken men all his life, Tarrou rejects this proposal. Tarrou comments, “I loathe mens being condemned to death,” (125). Tarrous reasoning for that not wanting prisoners to be used deviates from the ordinary. While many would object to prisoners being sent out to work because they do not deserve to be set free. Tarrou has different reasons. Because the plague is equal to death, Tarrou would want no part in forcing men to take part in. He wants volunteers, “free men,”(124) to confront death, not impressed individuals. This reveals an important belief of his of man is to confront death, it should be by his own desires and choices, not by something which “fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill,” (131).
Many people would believe that the prisoners deserve to die. After all, these men are the worst mankind has to offer, and the world may even be a better place without them. This is the type of rationale one uses to assume he “knows everything.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the prisoners may hardly be considered virtuous, this does not give us the right to kill them, Tarrou believes. We do not know everything. It is not for us to decide whether a man can live or not. Only ignorance will allow us to escape this fact.
To go into Tarrous decision deeper, one should realize, Tarrou knows that the plague is impossible for him to defeat. Rieux makes this readily apparent to him, saying, “Have you weighed the dangers?” (125) Rieux, although respecting Tarrous deed, makes sure Tarrou know what he is getting into. Because of existential philosophy, Tarrou has no choice but to fight against the plague. Cottard tells him that “the plague has the whip hand of you and there is nothing to be done about it,” (157), which again infers that Tarrous actions may prove fruitless. Cottard, the opposite of an existentialist, lets the circumstances govern his actions. Despite of this, Tarrou makes the decision to fight against the plague.
We are given a more intimate view of Tarrous repudiation for the plague when we study Tarrous opinion of Othon who may have the most severe case of plague in the novel. Serving as magistrate, Othons ignorance leads him to believe that he “knows everything and therefore claims for himself the right to kill,” (131). Othon has the power to sentence a human to death. Where did this power come from? We can only hypothesize it the base of it is “ignorance,” (131). After all, Tarrou believes there is no way to justify condemning a man to death. Othon must be ignorant not to realize this and letting “good intentions” conceal the truth. Eventually, Tarrou gives him the title “Enemy Number One,” (146).
Tarrou attempts to be a man of good faith. He thinks, by merely ignoring the plague and not joining forces with it is not enough. By using this type of ignorance, Tarrou would be actually be supporting it. This is “why Tarrou have resolved to have no truck with anything which, directly or indirectly, for good reasons or for bad, brings death to anyone or justifies others putting him to death,” (252). To have “no truck”(252) with the plague, one must not join forces with the plague, such as the magistrate has done. To Tarrou, to “not join forces with the pestilence,”(254) he must join the “victims side,” (254). He does, in fact, have plague, for he “had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that Id even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only that way,” (251). This is why he has to join the side of the victims. As the existential philosophy would direct, his actions have to be evaluated if everyone else had committed them.
Later in the court trial scene, again, it shows Tarrous belief clearly. Before looking at Tarrous perceptions on how the “poor owl”(252) was handled, one should see that Tarrou completely agrees that this man is guilty of whatever crime he had committed. He has confessed to the crime, and is, unequivocally, guilty. In spite of this fact, Tarrou does not believe the man should receive his death sentence. The certainty of the mans innocence of a crime is irrelevant to Tarrous decision that the man deserves death. Regardless of the outrage of the crime the “poor owl”(252) may have committed, Tarrou believes he unjustified his punishment. There is no excuse to kill a man, because we do not “know everything.”
It becomes evident to the reader that Tarrous troubles are completely based on existential beliefs. To clarify, Tarrou loses his peace and suffers only because of an existential viewpoint. It is important that society does not blame Tarrou for the unjustified deaths placed on men. One reason, obviously, is that society does not consider the majority of these deaths unjustified, thus there is no place to give blame. But, if a defendant who had received the death penalty were later found innocent, blame would lie in the courts, prosecutors, jury, and judge. No individual would place blame upon him, unless he is an existentialist. Tarrou is this person. What makes his situation all the more complex is the fact that he believes that all imposed deaths are unjustified, and, because he has contributed to the deaths of these people, he is faced with a huge burden. The desire to rid himself of plague becomes Tarrous greatest virtue, and obstacleXnot to be ignorant. .
The Real Plague