The Power of Language in The Plague
In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus presents a pseudo-historical documentary of a plague that confines and controls the citizens of Oran within their city gates. The plague possesses the power of life and death over the people, as it determines which citizens will face their death or those who work to stop death. These latter men, personified by the character's of Rieux, Grand, and Tarrau, each struggle endlessly to master the plague's power over their lives, even with the realization they may never succeed. For Camus, this idea of "impossible struggle" against an unseen power resonates throughout the novel and reoccurs in another "plague" which these men must contend - the limits of human language. Camus's characters place great emphasis and importance upon the power of language and lament their inability to express themselves clearly. As a result, Camus establishes that human language, like the plague, possesses an elusive power in determining the lives of these men even as they struggle to master and control it. Camus demonstrate this first through his description of Rieux's struggle to choose words carefully as he recognizes their power to both define and control his work. Next Camus establishes the power of words in his comical yet poignant portrayal of Grand, whose inability to "find the right words" stifles and confines both his work and his marriage (p.42). Lastly, Camus elaborates upon this power of words through the actions of Tarrau who directly links the misuse of words with the power to kill.
For Dr. Bernard Rieux, the use of human language will eventually help define his work. Therefore he struggles to choose his words carefully. When being asked to describe the mysterious disease that has infected certain town citizens, Rieux wavers, stating that he has not "described a 'syndrome' but merely what he has seen with his own eyes" (p. 47). Here Camus presents the power of certain words like "syndrome" as their use suggests or outlines a certain course of action for the doctors. Rieux recognizes this power and initially rejects the use of "syndrome" as it would mean almost immediate implications upon his profession as a doctor. Camus furthers this when Rieux considers the use of the word "plague". Rieux hesitates, knowing that this word possesses certain implications that will change the lives of all Oran's citizens through quarantine. Thus for Rieux, "It's not the question of the term I use; it's a question of time" (P.47). In this description Rieux establishes that the real issue of using the term "plague" concerns whether the "time" is right to unleash the word's power to change both their careers and the townspeople's lives. Through Rieux's hesitation in stating these terms, Camus demonstrates how language, like plague, can have the power of life or death over people like Rieux.
However, Rieux also realizes that he will never master or control this power, no matter how carefully he...