Posts Tagged Albert Camus

Pandemics in Literature

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020 | Permalink

Enforced isolation, cabin fever, disease and death of epic proportion–all these might seem like prime material for writers. It’s caused me to focus on my rewrites of my next novel.

But for all their inherent drama, however, pandemics are not often depicted in classic literature. We all know of the ten plagues of Egypt from the Bible, but in what other literary works does plague or pestilence drive the narrative?

The first instance that comes to mind is the Great Plague of London which occurred from 1665-1666. Heralded by a bright comet that appeared the year before, this last occurrence of Bubonic plague in England killed 100,000 Britons and its effects are well-documented in the Diary of Samuel Pepys.

A more fictional telling of plague and its impact appears in Katherine Anne Porter‘s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Perhaps better known for her novel, Ship of Fools, Porter used her experience as a reviewer for the Rocky Mountain News in her third of three short novels depicting the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 (BTW: the title comes derives from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in which the Fourth Horsemen–Death–is said to ride a pale horse).

As tragic but more pessimistic in its depiction of the human condition is Albert CamusThe Plague, written during the middle of World War II. Most comparable to today’s COVID-19 pandemic is Camus’ depiction of people’s attitudes toward the event, “they came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose.”

To counteract such a pessimistic assessment of plague’s impact, we must turn to real life and from a surprising source–Sir Isaac Newton. Forced to return home from Trinity College after its closing due to the Great Plague, the time away allowed him to pursue development of his theories on calculus, optics, and what author and organizational psychologist Nick Tasler calls “one of the most influential ideas in modern civilization—the theory of gravity.”

Which shows to a certain extent how time away from our routines, whether foisted upon us by phenomenal means like COVID-19, ordered by our doctor, or done on our own volition, can have positive outcomes. It’s allowed me to be halfway through the rewrites for my next novel–how about you?

Can you identify other works of literature in which plague, pestilence, or pandemic play a pivotal role? If so, name them in the Comments section below: