Remember back when I joked that a realistic Mormon novel made me glad I'd left the church? Well, that book has nothing on The Plague. The Plague represents a whole different order of magnitude in terms of every page making me hope this never happens to me.
The Plague is not an entertaining book. I know I struggled with whether to call Persepolis entertaining (since it deals with serious subjects), but now I see clearly that Persepolis is quite entertaining (both the book and the film). It's a cartoon after all. Naturally, The Plague leads me to start questioning my assumptions about literature. Does a novel need to be entertaining? My gut-level reaction is that of course it does -- otherwise who the hell is going to read it when they could be reading, say, the Internet? I mean, besides the nonbelieving literati and millions of French children who have to read it for school?
Even if I can't call The Plague entertaining, though, I will call it fascinating. It's a remarkable study in human nature as we see what happens to a population trapped by quarantine in a city ravaged by the bubonic plague. I don't think I could guess how people would react in such circumstances, yet chapter after chapter, I was struck by the author's insight on the subject.
Additionally, I think this may be the best portrait of Humanism I've ever read. The doctor, who is an atheist, works to combat the plague every single day because that's what needs to be done. The idealist/philosopher sees how human society rests thoughtlessly on the suffering and death of unseen individuals. As he organizes volunteers to fight the plague, he wages a futile fight against his own feelings of guilt. The preacher starts by attributing the disaster to God's (well-earned) wrath. Then, when he joins the volunteers in the human struggle against the plague, he sees a child die horribly despite his fervent prayers. He is permanently shaken by this, and -- while it doesn't cause him to lose his faith -- his faith is transformed. Other characters attempt to flee from the plague, profit from it, or simply deal with how it disrupts their lives.
I think The Plague succeeds at delivering its message: We're all in this together. In the struggle against death, death always wins in the end. But we can't (and shouldn't) give up the struggle. Because we're human.