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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The busy commercial town of Oran is inundated in mid-April by dead rats. At first, Dr. Rieux pays little attention to the rats, for he is in the midst of sending his sick wife away to a sanitarium. Before long, however, the dying rats are being replaced by dying human beings, who have contracted the bubonic plague. Dr. Rieux is alarmed because the death rate increases on a daily basis. As a result, he urges the authorities to take strict precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the plague; but the authorities, not wanting to be alarmists, procrastinate about taking any significant actions. They do not want to face the fact that there is an outbreak of the plague in their town. When the death toll reaches thirty on two consecutive days, the authorities are finally forced to take action. They close the gates of Oran, isolating it from the rest of the world.
The isolation of the town creates a lot of distress amongst the people in Oran. There is immediately a shortage of food and other necessities. Additionally, many people have been indefinitely separated from their loved ones. Rambert, the Parisian journalist, is one of the most miserable captives. He had been sent to Oran to report on the sanitary conditions of Arabs and then suddenly finds himself locked inside the plague-ridden town. He desperately tries to find ways to escape from Oran, but when he is not successful, he joins in the fight against the plague.
The plague brings out the best in many people. Dr. Rieux fights tirelessly against the spread of the disease without thought of his own well being. Tarrou and Grand also join in the fight and organize a team of volunteers to help the medical community. Some citizens, however, use the plague to their own advantage. Cottard, who had tried to commit suicide because he was involved in some criminal dealings, now feels safe since the authorities are focused on the plague. He takes advantage of the situation and profits financially through his smuggling activities. Father Paneloux also uses the plague to further his Christian beliefs. He tries to convince his congregation that God has sent the plague as a punishment, using it to separate the wheat from the chaff.
By mid-August, there is no sign of abatement in the fury of the plague, and the citizens of Oran have learned to live in fear with it. The town administration has devised more efficient methods of disposing of the innumerable daily dead. They have also created quarantine centers and stricter rules of segregation. Rambert finally accepts that he will be unable to escape from Oran and joins in the fight against the plague. Dr. Castel works diligently on an inoculation against the plague and is encouraged when the shot seems to positively impact an infected child; unfortunately, his life is only prolonged for a day. Father Paneloux, greatly saddened by the child’s death, softens his stance about the plague’s being God’s threshing device.
Just as the town gates are due to reopen after Christmas, Tarrou, who has been a chief fighter against the disease, contracts the plague and dies. Rieux’s suffering over the loss of his dear friend is worsened by the news of his wife’s death. Even though he has won the battle against the plague, his isolation continues. With the disease in remission, Cottard’s old fears return, causing him to go insane.
Of the main characters, only Grand and Rambert are able to return to a life of normalcy. When the gates are opened, Rambert’s wife comes from Paris to join him and take him home. Grand returns to writing his literary masterpiece, promising to strike all unnecessary adjectives from the text. Rieux turns to writing his chronicle of the plague, hoping to teach others a lesson and to bear witness to the admirable qualities in men and the injustice they have endured.