A little historical background
Albert Camus began writing this novel in Chambon-sur-Lignon, a mountainous village in central France, while recovering from a bout of Tuberculosis in 1942. After being involved in the resistance to the German occupation of France in WWII, he completed and published it in 1944. The novel is often considered an allegory for France under occupation, and I can see why this could be the case. He was obviously quite involved in the war, being the editor of Combat, an influential newspaper, and he wrote the book mostly during that time. Like the war, the plague comes as an unknown force into the town, giving the people little means of fighting back and forcing them to simply submit to it. The isolation of the city and the feeling of distance from the outside world that comes with quarantine is an element that is probably very similar to the effects of occupation on the French people.
Camus' own isolation and boredom while recovering from Tuberculosis was probably very influential on the novel as well, since he was to experience many of the inconveniences and discomforts that the plague brought to the town. Sitting around with nothing to do in the stifling heat, being denied the freedom of the ocean and away from his beloved home of Algiers, the novel seems quite similar to his own experience of disease. Also, the German occupation began while he was in Chambon-sur-Lignon, and so he was cut off from his wife and his mother, who were in Algeria, until the end of the occupation. Separation from loved ones is a very prominent theme in the book, and it seems clear that this stems from Camus' own feelings of separation at the time of the book's writing.
There was never a plague of such size in Oran during the 20th century, or at any other known time. There was an outbreak in 1944, around the time that the book was published, but Camus had already been writing it for several years beforehand, and anyway it killed less people in total than the fictional plague did every day. By my hugely inaccurate estimates, the novel's plague would have killed somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people, in a town of approximately 300,000. Apparently, Camus himself quite disliked Oran.
The novel is divided into five parts, each being about a stage in the progression of the plague:
The book opens with a quote of Daniel Defoe: "It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that exists by that which exists not." Part 1 introduces the town and the main characters, and sees the plague appear as huge numbers of rats begin to come into the streets, dying right in the open. When disposing of the thousands starts to become a real problem, they suddenly disappear, and everyone thinks little of it. Then the first human cases appear, the death toll rises, the prefecture declares a state of plague, and the town is closed.
The plague worsens and takes hold, the daily death toll steadily rises and the people steadily adapt to their new situation. Dr. Rieux says that "soon, there will only be mad people in our town," but he is wrong. Some people break out and clash with the guards at the town's gates, some make attempts to escape, but mostly people go on, with their lives undeniably different but fundamentally the same. They're just more focused on making it to tomorrow, rather than making it to next year. The one person who seems glad of the plague is Cottard, since the town's preoccupation with the plague keeps him safe from arrest for his former wrongdoings, whatever they are.
The shortest part of the book, it is something of a check list of information being given out by the narrator, concerning the progress of the plague and the steps that town's administration take to resist it. The funeral homes are completely inadequate for the number of dead that must be buried each day, and funerals go from grand events of "pomp and circumstance" to mass cremations performed with huge incinerating ovens that give off a foul vapour that drifts through the districts, and eventually to mass graves with piles of bubbling quicklime at the bottom. As for the living townspeople, by this point they do not feel the plague's presence as they did before, it is just another part of their daily lives. Their habits change in strange ways; they fill the cinemas every night, despite there being no new films, they disappear from the streets almost entirely, and they seem to live as though under a burden that keeps them from feeling very much at all.
Dr. Rieux and his colleagues persevere just as the plague does, but they are fighting against an enemy that they cannot hope to defeat. They have no means of effective treatment, they can only quarantine the victims and lance their swollen lymph nodes, watching as they die a lonely and painful death. Everyone stops bothering with the statistics, whether a hundred or a thousand die in a day doesn't affect them when they are doing all that they can. A serum is belatedly produced for the victims, but its efficacy is inconsistent and gives the health teams no respite from the uncertainty that comes with all of their actions. Then, from no actions taken by anyone concerned, the plague suddenly goes into decline.
The townspeople take the news of the decline of the disease with reserve, not wanting to celebrate too early, but over just a few weeks the number of new cases falls to zero. The people slowly go back to their lives, but Rieux knows that the plague can lie dormant for years, hiding in clothing, books and whatever else, and that the threat of death is never gone.
A few themes
Bravery and cowardice are major themes in the book. Camus seems not to believe in heroes, or at least to dislike them. There are no grand acts of bravery in The Plague, only stoic persistence. The characters that seems the bravest are the ones that go on just as they did before the plague arrived, such as Dr. Rieux and Jean Tarrou, and they do so more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. When people come together in the health teams to resist, it is said only that "it was no great merit on the part of those who dedicated themselves to the health teams, because they knew that it was the only thing to be done and not doing it would have been incredible at the time." Heroism does not exist when faced with such a foe as the plague, only a lack of cowardice and the will to do what is right for people. As Tarrou says, one must only "reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die." The characters who are cowardly are the ones who do nothing to help anyone, without doing anything to harm them either. Cottard, who is glad of the plague for his own reasons, seems more malicious than anyone because he sits on the sidelines and refuses to fight.
Camus also seems to say that against death there is no victory, for even the end of the plague is not due to the actions of anyone, but simply that the plague disappears as it came, without reason or motive. Any victory of life is a hollow victory, because it is accompanied by a hundred defeats at the hands of death. Knowing this, Rieux and the others still resist death when they can, and this is their bravery.
There is an allusion to his earlier novel, The Outsider, in part one of the book, where a character tells of a conversation he overheard about a young man who shot an Arab on a beach. This seems a little unnecessary, like Camus is doing a little literary product placement, but it shows that this novel is an extension of the previous, that they are based on the same core ideas. There seem to be many similarities between The Plague and The Outsider: the short, minimalist dialogue; the connection between the people and the environment in which they find themselves, as though the people and the town are one; the introverted main character, who seems to be somehow separate from the people around him; the morbid atmosphere and emphasis of death as a main feature of life. Dr. Rieux and Meursault seem very similar to me, in that they both go about life as though they are not particularly involved in it, and they are merely observing the spectacle of the world and its inhabitants. Reading The Outsider definitely helps one read The Plague, because it presents Camus' ideas about life and death much more explicitly, and with far less to obscure them.
What I think
The Plague is a novel about death, primarily, and I think that it is about more than the war. My take on it is that it is about how people react when the threat of death is brought forward and made immediate. Some are liberated by the uncertainty of tomorrow, others become terribly depressed and seek release, and some live life just as normal. This is really how people should act all of the time, since death is always a threat, but this is the point, I think. The weight of the plague upon the town is no different from that which is everywhere, always, but we ignore it, or don't even acknowledge that it is there. This is where Camus' notions of the "absurd" come in; there is no knowing when death will come, and our lives are thus entirely ruled by chance and causes that are always left unknown to us; the effect of the plague is to make these truths clear to the townspeople. The victims of the plague are determined completely by the caprice of an invisible force, without reason or justice, and there is little that anyone can do to resist.
I think the book is basically saying that we are blowing in the wind, regardless of whether we realise it or not, so perhaps it is better not to understand that death could be around any corner or in any home. Without the plague, the people do not think about death very much, and are much happier for it, so perhaps it is best just to live. This is one of the questions that I think Camus wants us to ask ourselves; whether it is useful to be aware of death's approach, whether life is determined by how it ends. Camus doesn't answer this question for us, and I think that is what makes him a good philosopher, regardless of how he felt about being labeled as one.
There were a few things that I didn't like about this novel. All in all it was excellent, but it was by no means perfect. Firstly, for a book that is essentially about death, no proper characters die until about three quarters of the way through, so the reader is only given an indirect sense of the plague's presence. Camus labours over the point of the oppressive gloom that the plague casts over the town, but 112 strangers dying one day is not as potent as the death of someone you know. The benefit of this is that when a character that we care about dies, we have not yet been desensitised as the townspeople have, and can feel the full effect of it, but the plague does not weigh as heavily on the reader's mind as I think it should.
Secondly, he tends to go on a bit too much about certain things, such as the separation of certain townspeople from loved ones who are outside Oran. This makes sense, because when the narrator's identity is revealed we find that he is someone who was separated so, but it still is a little tiresome. The number of people who are experiencing such separation must be quite small, proportionally, but it is given as the worst of the plague's punishments, which can hardly be true. It's a small, irritating thing.
Finally, while Camus keeps the dialogue succinct and realistic throughout the whole story, at one point in part 4 he breaks out, with Jean Tarrou giving a seven-page uninterrupted monologue about his personal history and philosophy. Everything was going so well until then, all of the characters were subtle and a little mysterious, there were tantalising glimpses of their inner selves in the dialogue, but then it's all out the window when Camus decides to make his own values abundantly clear. Perhaps I am being elitist here, thinking that I'm an intellectual because I read literature and think I understand it, but I prefer when books can show what they mean without saying it.
The quote at the bottom of beak's writeup is the beginning of the book that Joseph Grand hopes to write, but he never makes it past that first sentence. He spends hours adjusting it and pondering the best way to arrange it, so as to make the perfect opening to a book that will really impress the publishers.