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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
PART I, SECTION 2
Dr. Bernard Rieux kicks aside a dead rat outside his office and sees another dying as he enters his house. The concierge of the building dismisses the rats as if they were a practical joke. Rieux also does not think much about the rats because he is preoccupied with the fact that his wife, who is wasting away with illness, is about to leave for a sanitarium in the mountains. She tries to be brave about her condition and hopes for a fresh start when she returns home after her treatments.
As he and his wife travel to the railway station, Rieux notices that more rats are dying in unusually large numbers. At the station, the staid police magistrate, M. Othon, asks Rieux about the phenomenon of the dying rats. Rieux has no explanation.
In the afternoon, Raymond Rambert, a Parisian journalist, calls on Rieux. He has been sent to Oran to report on the living conditions and sanitation prevailing amongst the Arab population. Rieux admits that the conditions are not good, but he will not provide more information unless Rambert promises to "publish an unqualified condemnation of the present state of things." The reporter expresses an inability to comply with the request. As a result, Rieux states that he can have "no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth." Rieux then suggests that Rambert work on a story about the increasing number of dead rats in town.
In the evening Jean Tarrou, Rieux’s good friend, is visiting. He observes with interest the dying convulsions of a rat on the landing of Rieux’s house. M. Michel, the concierge, is not amused by the state of things. When Madame Rieux, the doctor’s mother, arrives the next morning to keep house for her son during his wife’s absence, she is unperturbed about the reported deaths of an increasing number of rats. After all, she has lived through a war, a depression, and the death of husband. A few dead rats do not seem to be much of a problem to her.
From April 18 to April 28, rats are found dead by the thousands; but on the following day, the number drops dramatically, making people feel hopeful. The concierge, M. Michel, does not feel hopeful. He is terribly sick, with pains in his armpits, neck, and groin. Father Paneloux, the Jesuit priest, helps M. Michel to the office of Dr. Rieux. The doctor, however, is on his way to attend to Cottard. He is the poor neighbor of Joseph Grand, a frail and elderly municipal clerk. Grand informs Rieux that Cottard, a criminal, has tried to hang himself. After Dr. Rieux treats Cottard, Rieux rushes home to examine M. Michel, who is growing worse by the moment. Even though the concierge suffers from a burning fever, an incredible thirst, and delirium, Rieux fails to diagnose his symptoms and sends him home. M. Michel dies on the way to hospital the next day. He is the first victim of the plague.
After all the main characters of the novel are introduced in this section, the rising action of the plot begins with the appearance in Oran of thousands of dying rats and the death of the first victim of the plague.
Dr. Rieux, the narrator, is the first character to be introduced. As he goes into his office, he steps on something soft and discovers it is a dead rat, which he mindlessly kicks aside. He is still unconcerned when he sees another rat dying nearby. His mind is completely preoccupied with the fact that his wife, who is seriously ill, is leaving for a sanitarium in the mountains. The doctor reveals that he is a kind and tender man who is devoted to his sick wife. Throughout the novel, he will feel somewhat guilty because he does not have more time to tend to her.
Rieux’s interview with Rambert, the Parisian journalist who works for a newspaper that does not always report the truth, reveals the doctor’s uncompromising moral stand. Rieux refuses to cooperate with Rambert unless he tells the whole truth about the situation in Oran; he also shows his compassionate concern about the injustice of the world and his desire to work for his fellowman. This is clearly shown when he goes to treat Cottard, a criminal who has tried to hang himself and when he rushes back to check on the sick M. Michel. Dr. Rieux also proves that he is a good friend as he entertains Jean Tarrou, who has come to Oran for a visit and is intrigued by the dying rats.
Dr. Rieux’s mother is also introduced in the chapter. She has come to stay with her son and keep house for him while his wife is away. It is clear that she cares about him deeply. As a person, Madame Rieux is unobtrusive, matter-of-fact, and not easily ruffled. She is not the least bit concerned about the dying rats. They are nothing in comparison to the things she has endured, such as war, depression, and the loss of a husband.
M. Michel, the concierge of Dr. Rieux’s building, is also introduced. When he first notices the dying rats, he tries to laugh them off as a practical joke. Towards the end of the chapter, however, he has identified the rats as his enemy. By the close of the chapter, M. Michel has become the victim of the rats, for he is the first person in Oran to die from the plague that was spread by the rodents. Ironically, Dr. Rieux, even though he has examined M. Michel and witnessed his high fever and delirium, does not yet associate his death with the plague.
It should be noted that the plague itself will become a central character of the novel; therefore, it is appropriate that it appears in this introductory chapter.