Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Albert Camus’s The Plague and Charles Dickens


The title of this post may have my readers scratching their heads. After all, what on Earth can Albert Camus’s The Plague have in common with the works of Charles Dickens? Usually Camus is compared with such existentialist thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Charles Sartre. Stepping outside what is usually considered existentialist theory will, I think, yield some surprises. In my opinion, there are important and significant similarities and, of course, differences between the ideas expressed in The Plague and the worldview of Dickens.

One of the primary themes of Albert Camus’s The Plague is the fight against human suffering and the sacrifices that individuals and groups must make in order to engage in this struggle. In my commentary here, I explored how Camus took a very unconventional approach to the very old subject of sacrifice for the good of others, altruism, compassion, etc. I could simply contrast this approach to traditional thinking. However, when I think about a novelist whose work has come to embody the championing of these better aspects of human nature, if only in a different way, I think of none other then Charles Dickens.

As I ruminated in my previous post on the work, Camus’s novel vigorously advocates human exertion in the name of helping to ameliorate suffering and pain. In fact, I think that The Plague can be viewed as an argument that this form of altruism is the key to finding meaning in life. Acting in such a way may be the only thing that makes any sense in a malign universe.

Dickens’s stories also commonly exemplify sacrifice, charity and compassion for others. Again and again, aid to the sick, the poor and the distressed is extolled as extremely virtuous and noble. Dickens’s look at this form of righteousness is more or less the traditional view and is similar to the thinking that runs throughout many of the world’s religions, philosophies and cultures. 

Instances in Dickens’s writing are so numerous and well known that it is almost unnecessary to provide examples. For instance, the plot of A Tale of Two Cities hinges in Sydney Carton’s sacrifice of his own life to save Charles Darnay. In doing so, he finds the ultimate meaning to his existence. Ebenezer Scrooge is, of course, our society’s poster boy for the degenerating effects of selfishness and the redemptive powers of bestowing charity. Almost any Dickens work will provide additional examples. 

When it comes to finding purpose in life through alleviating human misery, both authors have reached the very same endpoint. However, both have arrived at this destination by following very different routes.

Camus approaches the problem from a view of a universe where there is either no God or, if there is a God, he is one who plays no part in day-to-day human affairs and who has created a reality where justice does not exist. Though I believe Dickens sees the world through a Christian belief system, oddly enough, his realities behave in ways very similar to that of the reality seen in The Plague. Although justice is often served and there are happy endings, at other times very bad things happen to innocent and good people. Often, chaos runs free in the world unchecked with no end in site. When good does triumph, it usually does so through the good actions of people.

But the two authors’ views on these matters are also very different, even diametrically opposed, in many ways. Dickens can be described as a super sentimentalist. He throws gallons of emotion both at his depictions of human suffering as well as at corresponding altruistic action and sacrifice. His works are full of famous, powerful and affecting death scenes. 

In contrast, Camus rejects all sentimentality. As I pointed out in my first post, he sees altruism as a rational response to an irrational world. He views good works as simply a sensible reaction to an insensible universe.

There is indeed a terrible death scene in The Plague, during which a young boy who is stricken with the plague dies an excruciating death. Although the passage is extremely disturbing, it is grim, clinical and unsentimental.

The narrator of the story describes how the boy dies,

In the small face, rigid as a mask of grayish clay, slowly the lips parted and from them rose a long, incessant scream, hardly varying with his respiration, and filling the ward with a fierce, indignant protest, so little childish that it seemed like a collective voice issuing from all the sufferers there.   

Compare this to Dickens’s description of the death of the orphan Johnny in Our Mutual Friend. As Johnny dies, he thinks of Bella, “the boffor lady” who has been kind to him.

With a weary and yet a pleased smile, and with an action as if he stretched his little figure out to rest, the child heaved his body on the sustaining arm, and seeking Rokesmith's face with his lips, said: 'A kiss for the boofer lady.’

I must admit that in contrast to Camus’s passage of horror, Dickens seems laughably melodramatic here.

Dickens also throws copious accolades upon those who perpetuate good acts. After Sydney Carton’s sacrifice, Darnay, Darnay’s wife and Darnay’s descendants all remember him with gratitude and tributes for generations. 

Camus sees these altruistic deeds very differently, 

The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation. And to do this there was only one resource: to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical.   

Later, Camus’s narrator goes on to some interesting observations about individuals who have joined the “Sanitary Squads.” These units are designed to combat the plague, but they put their members in extreme peril,

However, it is not the narrator’s intention to ascribe to these sanitary groups more importance than their due. Doubtless today many of our fellow citizens are apt to yield to the temptation of exaggerating the services they rendered. But the narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The narrator does not share that view

Thus, good works are not just rational, but they are already more common than we tend to think.

Dickens also extolled individual action. His heroes and heroines more usually act alone in their attempts at making the world better. Once again Sydney Carton is a good example of this, as he acts on his own and even in secret when he sacrifices his life to save Darnay. Of course Scrooge also acts almost entirely as an individual after his redemption. 

In contrast, Camus strongly exhorts people to band together in groups in order to alleviate human pain. He seems to reject extreme government forms of societal organization such as communism. Instead, he seems to contend that people are most effective when they voluntarily join together. 

When organizing the Sanitary Groups, Jean Tarrou strategizes,

Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic. And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold. If we let them carry on like this they’ll soon be dead, and so shall we…I’ve drawn up a plan for voluntary groups of helpers. Get me empowered to try out my plan, and then let’s sidetrack officialdom.

Without a doubt, Dickens’s views on these matters are more popular. Though he is over-the-top in his use of sentiment at times, I am more partial to his approach. I do think that I understand what Camus was saying, and I believe that it follows a logical process; however, it seems that it does not reflect the reality of human nature. 

Dickens extolled warm and strong emotions as the primary driver of altruism. I would argue that Dickens understands human behavior better. People need sentimentality, enthusiasm and energy in order to fight against the misery and injustice inherent in the Universe. While I find Camus’s view a fascinating intellectual exercise, ironically, Dickens’s approach seems much more practical. Hand in hand with this idea is the fact that strong positive emotions surrounding self-sacrifice make the pain of such sacrifice a bit less painful, thus alleviating suffering in and of itself.

At the end of my little intellectual foray, I humorously thought about what The Plague would have been like if Dickens had written it. I can imagine the book retaining the same basic plot. The theme of self-sacrifice in order to assuage the suffering and loss to others could likewise remain intact. Putting aside the different way in which he would portray characters, I think that Dickens’s version of the book would include one or more tearful and extremely overemotional death scenes that would almost descend into parody.  Dr. Rieux and the volunteers who assisted others during the crisis would be memorialized with homages consisting of a generous heaping of laudatory prose from both the other characters as well as the author.

It may seem a bit odd to compare these two writers. I set out to show that are major similarities, at least in the way both look at issues relating to life’s meaning and purpose. For me, the fact that these commonalities exist makes the differences all the more interesting.

33 comments:

James said...

A very unusual but thoughtful commentary. Unlike you, I lean toward Camus' approach, especially the notion of individuals joining together voluntarily.
However, I would not mind some of Dickens' sentimentality as long as it isn't forced upon me.

Suko said...

A very interesting comparison today! You're right, there are similarities as well as marked differences. I could see this discussion continued in a classroom.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I should note that I like the idea of of individuals joining together voluntarily to make the world better. I just think that the lack of sentimentality on Camus's part is unnecessary.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - That is if a teacher or professor were crazy enough to compare these two writers :)

Tracy Terry said...

As always an extremely thought provoking post. I admire your in depth reading of these books, that you take the time to actually consider these things.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy. I find that digging this deep and thinking about these things is half the fun of reading.

Sharon Henning said...

The similarities between Camus and Dickens are that both perceive that suffering exists and they know that it is not right. Also that it should end. Both draw the same conclusion that human will can and should alleviate suffering.

My question is why isn't it? Or why aren't all humans trying to alleviate suffering? In fact, what causes most human suffering? (North Korea and Somalia come to mind as well as all countries that support human trafficking). If evolution is about survival why do so many humans fight against it?

How does the one group of humans have a chance at winning over the other group?

I have no choice but to believe in a sovereign God who is not distant rather than a malign universe. The Bible promises that one day all suffering will pass.

As you pointed out, even atheists see this as a desirable thing.

I can't tell you how much I appreciate your posts, Brian. They make me really think and sort out why I believe what I believe.

Take care!!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - With out a doubt, I think that it is safe to say that most decent and rational people throughout history have tried to alleviate suffering.

I also think that it is pretty clear that evolution and survival strategy give us a mixed bag when it comes to hurting others verses helping others. It is the individual organism that is driven to survive. An "optimal" mix of survival strategy for an individual organism is to sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete. Then cooperation lends itself to cases of amazing altruism, the competition lends itself to horrendous cruelty.

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

Thank you for this article, Brian. I certainly would not have made the connection between Camus and Dickens.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - So much has been written about Caumus's thought system that I figured on that I would do something different.

So many books, so little time said...

I often find after coming here thinking about either books or authors I would never have before or in this instance, a comparison I would never have made. Thought provoking indeed!

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Naida said...

Interesting post comparing similarities and differences of Dickens and Camus. This can make for a great discussion over tea.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Thanks! I think that reading and thinking about stuff like this is all part of what makes reading so fun.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Indeed this is great fodder for great book talk!

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Very interesting comparison, Brian. I love Dickens' penchant for drama but I also have to agree with Camus, helping others should be the norm, not an exception.
Great article, and thought provoking.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Thanks.

I do agree that helping others should be routine. However, I think that a little emotion and sentimentality helps to fuel the process.

JaneGS said...

I actually think comparing two very different writers as you did is a fruitful way to analyze them. Compare and contrast has always been a favorite approach of mine, and I really enjoyed your flight of how Dickens might have dealt with Camus's premise.

Btw, you can never forget that Dickens wrote to make money and I often think that his sentimentality has a touch of pandering to what he thinks (knows) will sell books. While he wrote with a social/reform agenda, he wrote to make money and found what the public liked. Not an "art for art's sake" kind of guy!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Good point about Dickens's profit motive. Oddly we usually think of works written in that way as being of lesser substance and not likely to stand the test of time. Somehow Dickens transcended that.

Caroline said...

That's avery original approach, Brian. I don't think I've ever seen them compared but it's interesting and thought-provoking. I really enjoyed reading youtr thoughts.
I for one wonder what Camus would have thought about saving the greatest possible number of people seeing today's overpopulation. I know many who say that either a plague or a war a necessary. Not that I agree - I find both awful but we need to get the numbers iunder control.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I think that though unsentimental, Camus was way to occupied with kindness between folks to support anything like that.

Personally, even if it were not for moral questions, I think that such a plague or war would likely bring down civilization. Of course the bast way to control population is through reduced births. It has essentially happened in America, Europe and Asia already.

So many books, so little time said...

Agreed Brian and I think is anyone comes away from your blog willing to try something purely on your thoughts/review/recommendation - it is a great thing.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Lainy,

Harvee Lau said...

Interesting comparisons! Haven't read the Plague but agree Dickens shows how compassion could alleviate the misery of the nineteenth century in London and in Europe. One of my favorite of his books, The Tale of Two Cities. And Oliver Twist!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Without a doubt Dickens exudes compassion in most of his works. That is what made me think to compare the two since this book does also.

Séamus Duggan said...

Interesting post. I'm probably on the side of Camus as I instinctively distrust sentiment, although I do appreciate Dickens. I often find sentiment a cloak for inaction, and charity a way of supporting the status quo while ameliorating our guilt at the outcome of that status quo. Dickens loved getting people to cry at his readings and at times can seem incurably narcissistic. However the power of his characterisation and the tumbling fecundity of his imagination far outweigh his flaws. I must read him again, it's been decades since my teenage infatuation.
Camus always seems to me very close to Beckett - I can't go on, I must go on - and it is interesting to note that both put their lives on the line to work with the French Resistance during WW2. And logic can be as spurious as sentiment, especially if it leads to hopelessness. But despair is what Camus argued against..

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Seamus - You hit something on the head with Dickens, His work is so flawed it is a wonder that any level of Brilliance can transcend the flaws, yet in his case it does.

In terms of the way that I view the nuts and bolts of the Universe I am much closer to Camus. Indeed I distrust acting on instinct and gut feeling. However, when it comes to worthwhile human accomplishments, sentiment and other emotions seem to often be the fuel for the engine.


I really must read Beckett.

Andrew Blackman said...

Loved reading this, Brian. Those are two authors I'd never expect to see in the same sentence, but you make a very convincing case. I haven't read The Plague by Camus, only The Outsider and The Rebel, but I can certainly see the points you're making. Compassion and sacrifice can be portrayed in many different ways. Interesting to see how two very different writers can be driven by some of the same concerns. Very thought-provoking post!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Andrew.

Indeed this is an odd couple to compare but I tried to find a comparison that volumes were not already written about as there are between Camus and the Existentialists.

argumentativeoldgit said...

Thanks for that post, Brian. I must admit that I come to this as a fully paid-up Dickensian, and also as someone who did read Camus’ novels a great many years ago, and has but little remembrance of them.

The quote you give from Camus is interesting:

“The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation. And to do this there was only one resource: to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical.”

Logic, of course, cannot work in a vacuum: it has to be based on axioms - principles we accept without argument because we see them as self-evident. And Camus states his axiom here: “The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying…” And since this is axiomatic, there can be no logical argument with anyone who refuses to accept this - no way of showing, using logical argument, that they are wrong. And it may be argued, depending on how we define “sentimentality”, that putting forward as axiomatic the principle that as many people as possible must be saved from dying is in itself “sentimental” - in the sense that it derives from our sentiments, not from our rational faculties. We cannot escape sentiment altogether, I think!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri - I totally agree that sentiments and feeling underly these things. If one were just logical then why bother to sacrifice for others?

Maria Behar said...

Hi, there!

Now this is certainly an innovative, interesting approach to two such diametrically opposed writers!

Dickens happens to be one of my favorite writers. Yes, he can be overly sentimental, but there's an undercurrent of optimism in his work that I find helps me to counteract my basically pessimistic temperament.

From the Camus quotes you've included in this post, I would have to conclude that Camus has a very clinical, totally cold approach, although I must concede that, in portraying human suffering, perhaps the maxim "less is more" can be seen to be true. Still, I find his description of the young boy's death to be too impersonal. On the other hand, perhaps his unsentimental approach renders this boy's death more of a universal symbol, instead of simply being this particular boy's death. However, I do find this approach to create a detachment between the author and this character that I totally dislike.

Where Camus is clinically cold and rational, Dickens is warm and empathetic. Furthermore, with him, the alleviation of human suffering is an altruistic act stemming from compassion. With Camus, it's simply "the logical thing to do". ( Hmmmm....does this remind you of a certain Vulcan we both know and love? Lol.)

To continue....compassion is an emotion. It does not come from cold, analytical logic. It comes from the heart, from "feeling with" a fellow human being. I totally dislike Camus's view, so again, I think I definitely need to avoid reading his works.

I especially like what you say here:

"Dickens’s approach seems much more practical. Hand in hand with this idea is the fact that strong positive emotions surrounding self-sacrifice make the pain of such sacrifice a bit less painful, thus alleviating suffering in and of itself.'

Very well stated indeed! And I heartily concur!

Another point: people who alleviate the suffering of their fellow humans DO need to be praised and seen as moral heroes, PRECISELY because of the prevalence of those who could care less, those who even take advantage of the suffering of others. These moral heroes need to be set up as examples to the rest of us, as well. People like Mother Teresa, for example, must be seen as exemplars of the type of behavior we should all emulate, in the measure of our capacity to do so. So, once again I find myself vehemently disagreeing with Mr. Camus.

Conclusion: I'm definitely "Team Dickens", all the way!! Lol.

Thanks for the great post!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Yourself as well as Himadri point out something that I think is important. Without emotion we would really have no reason to try to make the world better and alleviate suffering. I must add, ironically however, that a more rational a society is, the more value it seems to pale in empathy and compassion. It really is all about balance.


IOn the end both writers wanted to make the world better by alleviating suffering so in the end I cannot argue to vigorously against either. Compare them both to thinkers like Nietzsche and they both look very favorable.

Maria Behar said...

Good point about Nietxche! Well, what can you say about a philosopher who had such a huge influence on the Nazis....What a great guy.....ha.ha.ha.