The Women of the Plague
EvoLit Web Event 3
I loved The Plague. However, the lack of female characters seemed reprehensible. The female characters that are mentioned in the novel have very few lines and the story of an entire town suffering from a crippling plague is told entirely from the perspective of several male characters. Given that the plague affects everyone within the town, regardless of gender, the omission of a female voice is obvious. I felt that I was missing something in reading the story. This web event has grown out of my frustration with the absence of a substantial female presence in The Plague. The following are two vignettes out of a larger series I'm planning featuring minor female characters from Camus' novel. In addition to gender, in the series I wanted to explore some of the issues we had discussed in class in relation to the novel, such as grief, shame, denial, guilt, grief, and justice.
“For at the same moment the orchestra stopped playing, the audience rose and begant to leave the auditorium, slowly and silently at first … women lifting their skirts and moving with bowed heads, men steering the ladies by the elbow to prevent their brushing against the tip-up seats at the ends of the rows. But gradually their movements quickened, whispers rose to exclamations, and finally the crowd stampeded toward the exits, wedged together in the bottlenecks, and pouring out in the street in a confused mass, with shrill cries of dismay.” (page 201)
Amelie had been dressed for nearly an hour. She sat on the chaise in her best evening gown, tapping her ivory-handled fan impatiently against her palm. Where was her husband? Ever since the damned plague had descended upon the town, nearly all of Amelie's usual diversions had vanished. Now, visiting the opera house every Friday evening was the highlight of Amelie's week.
But where was Louis? He had gone out much earlier to procure rations for the week, and if he did not return soon they would be late for the opera, or worse, miss it altogether. At long last, Amelie heard the front door open, and she rose eagerly from her seat. “Louis!” she called. “Hurry and dress! We mustn't be late!” There was no reply, though Amelie could hear her husband in the kitchen, putting supplies away.
She entered the kitchen, lifting her long skirt as she walked. “Louis?” He stood beside the sink, carefully organizing the rations on the counter. He smiled wanly as she came to stand beside him, and Amelie was struck by how tired he looked. There were dark circles beneath his eyes and his broad shoulders drooped downwards, as though they bore a heavy burden.
“Must we, Amelie? The theater has played Orpheus for a month and a half now.”
Amelie placed a gloved hand on his arm. “Oh, please! It's so diverting, and it's vastly preferable to crouching at home, brooding.”
He sighed heavily, pushing the empty bags aside on the counter. “The Richelieu family is dead. Pierre told me. Apparently once their daughter fell ill, it was only a matter of days before the rest of the family was claimed.”
A thickness formed in Amelie's throat. “How terrible,” she murmured. Three children and their parents, friends of hers. She felt momentarily faint. “And – and the funeral?”
Louis shook his head. “That quarter of the town was locked down. Pierre had just left when the quarantine was announced. It's not long before we're all forced to stay in our houses and wait to die, like the damned rats.”
Bile rose in Amelie's throat. “Louis, I don't want to speak about this anymore. I–”
“Let's leave,” Louis interrupted urgently, seizing Amelie's shoulders. “Pierre said he has connections with guards. We have money, we may be able to pay someone to let us through.”
“But Oran is our home. We grew up here,” said Amelie, stunned. The idea of leaving had never occurred to her, although of course she had heard that people had tried. “But – surely things aren't so bad yet.”
Louis scoffed and pulled away. “Amelie, the daily death toll is in the hundreds already! How much worse must it be for you to realize? We could die, Amelie! It's only by the grace of God we haven't yet.”
Blinking away tears, Amelie said, “Louis, please, let's – let's not think about it now.” His face changed, and his expression, a combination of anger and fear, worried her more than his words. “Later we'll discuss it, I promise,” she said desperately. “Later. But right now I – I can't think about it.”
Louis hugged her gently. “Very well,” he said. “Orpheus again, eh?”
The opera house was as lovely and welcoming as ever. Its plush seats, vaulted ceilings, and warm lighting never failed to transport Amelie. Within the walls of the theater, the plague was but a dark thought, easily pushed to the back of her mind. Amelie settled down in her seat, her hand in Louis's. She looked around at the other couples filing in, slowly filling the rows. The crowd seemed a bit thinner this week, and Amelie's mind drifted to the Richelieus, and then to other faces she knew she'd never see again – the Moreaus, the Fourniers, the Lefevres. All lost to the plague. A strange sensation rose within her, a mixture of panic and foreboding. Amelie squeezed Louis' hand, and he looked at her with concern. “Amelie?”
“I'm fine,” she said, and carefully pushed her troubling thoughts aside. Soon enough the lights were extinguished and the opera began. The swelling music, the voices trembling with vibrato, the emotional tale – Amelie was utterly captivated. Perhaps she had heard the music so many times she would soon have the entire opera memorized; perhaps the costumes looked a bit worn; perhaps the actors looked a bit pale and tired. But Amelie didn't care. She easily ignored all this and lost herself in the spectacle.
By the third act, Amelie had to admit that she was slightly taken aback by the clumsiness of the lead actor. Tonight, Orpheus had added into his performance strange, jerky gestures, so small that unless one was very familiar with the show, as Amelie was, they would have been undetectable. Amelie frowned, but her anticipation of Orpheus' duet with Eurydice made it impossible for her to worry about such a trivial matter. In the middle of the duet, however, the actor stumbled, and then walked unsteadily toward the footlights. For a moment Amelie was put out; he was ruining the emotional affect of the song. But then suddenly he collapsed, and as he convulsed violently on the stage it became very clear that this was not part of his theatrical performance.
Amelie, who had been sitting forward in her seat, reeled backward, horrified. The theater was the one place where she did not have to think about the plague, where it ceased to exist for a few blissful hours. And now the disease had invaded her last safe place. Louis got quickly to his feet, and reached down to help Amelie to her feet. Stunned as she was, it took some gentle prodding before she rose and walked stiffly into the aisle. A strange calm had fallen over the theater. Some other couples were also exiting, the ladies led by their male companions, but many sat in silence, staring at the twitching, fallen Orpheus. Then whispers and murmurs broke out, and as Louis led her quickly out of the theater Amelie could hear screams of horror behind her, and then a sound like rolling thunder as the audience rushed as one toward the door.
Tears dripped down Amelie's face as she and Louis reached their home. “They will declare a lockdown on our quarter by the morning,” said Louis gravely, helping Amelie up the front steps and ushering her into the house.
Amelie pulled off her gloves and shawl and dropped them on the floor of the front room. She kicked off her shoes, then reached up removed the pins from her hair and let them fall from her hands. A savage anger rose within her and she began tugging roughly on her dress. The buttons were tiny and she didn't have the patience to undo each one. Amelie pulled harder, ripping the fragile material of the dress.
“Amelie.” Louis grabbed her hands. “Don't. You'll rip your dress.”
“I don't care,” she said. “I don't – I can't stay here, Louis. I can't breathe in this godforsaken town. Speak to Pierre. I want to leave.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
She nodded, looking straight into his eyes. “There's nothing here for us but death.”
Amelie laid her head on Louis' shoulder and wept.
“ Mother and father were standing at the bedside when Rieux entered the room … [the mother] was holding a handkerchief to her mouth, and her big, dilated eyes followed each of the doctor's movements.” (211)
He was only a child.
When the dead rats piled up in the streets, I thought it was merely a strange occurrence. But then townspeople began to die, only a few at first, and then more each day. I began to pray that God would spare our town. I went to Mass every evening, hoping that my attendance would strengthen my pleas. Then the death toll grew even higher, and the dead in the poorest quarters were left in the streets for days until they could be buried. I began holding my own vigils at home, begging God for a cure, for salvation. The plague spread swiftly from the poor areas to the wealthier parts of town, and I kept my children inside. If God wouldn't protect the town, I would protect my children. Jacques and his younger sister Elyse were my entire world.
My husband, the town magistrate, had business in town every day. When he left the house in the morning, I would watch from our front window, unable to move until he was out of sight. Then my prayers began. I muttered prayers under my breath every possible moment. I prayed while I watched my children play, I prayed as I cooked their meals, I prayed when I put them down for their afternoon nap. I prayed as I boiled our soiled clothes, as I scrubbed my floors and walls and tables. When my husband returned at night, I prayed silently as I greeted him. I made him wash thoroughly before he came near the little ones. I took every measure I could think of. I prayed and I was sure that God would hear me. He would spare my family.
Then one day, two months after the beginning of the plague, Jacques was irritable and tired. I decided to give him a bath while his sister slept. As I pulled off his shirt, I saw a lump swelling on his neck. There were more beneath his arms. My breath caught in my throat. I knew that these lumps were the first sign of the plague. But how could this be?
When my husband returned home, he sent immediately for the physician. When Dr. Rieux arrived, my husband led him into our bedroom, where I sat with our son on my lap. Jacques had become feverish, and I cradled him to my chest. My husband said quietly, “Save my son.” Rieux promised to do everything in his power. We nodded and agreed. Rieux turned to me. “You must all be quarantined at the hospital while we treat Jacques.” I stared blankly back at him. “You must be quarantined separately from Jacques, to reduce your risk of contracting the disease,” he said.
Jacques whimpered, and my arms tightened around him. “No.” I couldn't be parted from him. “He needs his mother. He needs me with him.”
Rieux shook his head. “That won't be possible,” he said kindly. “I know how difficult this must be, but – the safest thing for everyone is for you to be separated.”
In the end I let them take him away. I, my husband, and my daughter were all moved to the quarantine hospital. Rieux assured us that Dr. Castel had created a new serum they would administer to Jacques in the auxiliary hospital across town. Their hopes of success were high, he said.
I later found out that receiving the serum did nothing but quicken Jacques' death. While I was locked in quarantine, praying for a miracle, my son screamed and writhed in pain for hours on end before he finally slipped away.
Our family couldn't have a proper service for him, because we weren't allowed out of quarantine. Instead, Rieux said he would send the town priest to visit us. I refused this offer.
The plague ended a few months later. My husband, Elyse and I never contracted the disease. We had a memorial service for Jacques as soon as we were able, but I didn't want to have a church service. Despite all my prayers and pleading, my God had done nothing.
He was only a child.
Note: I've written some others but I these were two of my favorite, and I thought it would probably be best to keep this web even from getting too long…