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'A Matter Of Common Decency': What Literature Can Teach Us About Epidemics

A man crosses an empty road in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on Feb. 3, 2020.
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A man crosses an empty road in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on Feb. 3, 2020.

Professor Alice Kaplan has been scrambling to revise her lectures for the French literature class she teaches at Yale University.

On the syllabus, coincidentally, for her online class is The Plague, Albert Camus' 1947 novel about a plague epidemic that ravages a quarantined city in Algeria.

"I never imagined I would be teaching this novel in the midst of an epidemic," Kaplan says. "I never imagined I'd need to give a trigger warning for teaching Camus' The Plague."

Kaplan has students taking her class virtually from Hong Kong and from Wuhan, China, the city that was the early center of the global COVID-19 pandemic. "They're really feeling this in a way that no other readers have ever felt this novel before," Kaplan says.

She is one of many readers who are revisiting and rethinking literature about mass disease in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sales of The Plague have skyrocketed in Europe as people search for meaning in the midst of the outbreak. Coincidentally, Kaplan is writing the preface for a new translation of the novel. She spent December walking the streets of Oran, the Algerian city beset by plague in the book, and she's just returned from France, where, she says, you can't pick up a newspaper without seeing a reference to the novel.

"People are saying in the French press, what do you absolutely need to read in this time? You need to read The Plague," Kaplan says. "Almost as though this novel were a vaccine — not just a novel that can help us think about what we're experiencing, but something that can help heal us."

Camus used the plague as an allegory for war: a reflection on the Nazi occupation of France and the stubborn acts of resistance against it. His character Dr. Rieux explains his tenacious persistence in fighting the plague this way: "There's no question of heroism in all this. It's a matter of common decency. ... I don't know what it means for other people. But in my case, I know that it consists in doing my job."

That "common decency" embodied in Dr. Rieux's struggle against the plague has special resonance now. "We think about this when we see our health care workers today," Kaplan says. "The love and the solidarity and the dedication through death and loss — that was very meaningful to Camus," she says. "He was talking about resistance, and about how people can come together in a situation to resist."

Kaplan sees echoes, too, in today's global uncertainty about just how long the pandemic will last, and how long cities will be locked down. "After the Nazis invaded France, no one knew how long it would last," she says. "Some people thought they needed to adapt to a whole new world where France would always be part of a German Nazi empire. And then other people thought it would be over in a couple of weeks."

In Camus' novel, the plague is more than a diabolical external force imposing its will. Camus writes, "Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it."

As professor Kaplan sees it, "[Camus is] talking about our shadow. I think he's talking about our capacity to do harm. He says at some point, 'There's more to admire in man than to despise.' But, you know, it's a contest."

The final paragraph of the novel warns that the plague bacillus is always lurking, biding its time, waiting for the day, Camus writes, "when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city."

"It's a message of vigilance," Kaplan concludes. "It's a message against complacency."

Bubonic plague is also the affliction at the center of the novel Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Set in 1665, it draws on the true story of the tiny English village of Eyam (pronounced Eem). Brooks stumbled on the history during a ramble through the English countryside, when she saw a sign pointing to "Plague Village."

"And that just intrigued me," Brooks says. "It's one of our most primal fears as human beings, the idea of this silent stalking killer."

In her novel, Brooks describes the extraordinary action taken by the villagers of Eyam: They decided to voluntarily quarantine their town, keeping the plague inside. By some estimates, two-thirds of the villagers perished. They suffered ghastly deaths.

"It was a huge cost to the villagers," Brooks says, "because a lot of those might have survived if they'd fled early in the outbreak. But on the other hand, that act of self-sacrifice meant that the plague did not spread beyond Eyam into the surrounding communities, and so many thousands, perhaps, of lives were saved."

It's that momentous moral choice — risking their own lives to protect others — that Brooks finds so provocative.

"How did this life and death decision come about?" she wonders. "What was the thing that moved people's hearts? And then once you've made that decision, how do you live with the consequences of it, when day following day you lose another person that you love?"

Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, Brooks finds herself asking this question: Who will I be?

"Will I be my best self?" she asks. "Or will I become a selfish monster? Will I be the person pushing my neighbor away to grab the last roll of toilet paper, on a trivial level? I think it's a challenge for us all."

In her 2019 novel The Dreamers, writer Karen Thompson Walker conjures up a mysterious virus: a deadly, highly-contagious sleeping sickness that descends on a college town in California.

Before the town is cordoned off by the military, there is one last wedding, with a bride who's grown pale and woozy.

Walker writes, "Whoever shares her lipstick that day, whoever borrows her eyeliner, whoever kisses her cheek that night or dances too close or clinks her flute of champagne, whoever touches her hand to admire the ring, whoever catches the bouquet at the end of the night — all of them, every one, is exposed. This is how the sickness travels best: through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love."

In parallel with today's pandemic, the characters in Walker's novel confront a shortage of face masks. There is a panicked run on supermarkets. Waves through a window to loved ones under quarantine. Talk of it all being a hoax. And, just as now, the impossibility of knowing what's to come.

"That's something that I'm interested in, in general, as a writer," Walker says. "What it's like for human beings to live with a kind of radical uncertainty. We never do know what's going to happen, but there are certain times like the situation in my book or the situation we're in now where that feeling of uncertainty is right at the forefront."

As for the literature she's turning to in this uncertain, troubled time, Walker says, it's not books about disease and dystopia.

She's been finding solace in the poetry of Mary Oliver.

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Melissa Block
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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