Jack London had written his The Scarlet Plague thirty-three years before Camus’s famous The Plague. One could call it an excellent example of proto-post apocalyptic fiction. It recounts the story of the “Red Death” in America, which has depopulated most of the region, following the lives of people in San Francisco sixty years after the plague. One such character is James Smith aka Granser, who tells his grandson, brought up in the savage environment, how the plague affected the lives of all those people who had died and how they viewed death itself. Even though the novel was published more than a hundred years ago, it was able to distinctly portray the horror and despair people felt when an invisible plague spreads throughout our society at large. Of course, seventy years before Jack London, Edger Allen Poe had written about the red death in his story The Mask of the Red Death. It is written in the old and new testaments, how the lord had punished the Israelites. It is one of the ways the lord seems fit to periodically discipline his subjects when they disregard his commands. It is punishment from which people can only survive through their renewed worship of Him.
The Scarlet Plague isn’t the only novel where a plague is mentioned. Many of the literary works of antiquity considered them as divine punishment for man’s sins. We can observe one such example in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex play, written around four and a half hundred years before the birth of Christ. The King’s sins brought about catastrophe for his once prosperous Kingdom of Thebes. But the king had no hand in this. People in ancient Greece used to think they had no control over their fate. That whatever is written in their fate will evidently happen, that people would step into their path of sins quite unaware of the consequences. However, many authors before Sophocles did not see the plague as the lord’s curse.
During primitive times, people possessed insufficient answers to the mysteries of life and the universe. They had no other way than to leave their fate in the hands of the Almighty. We can get an idea of this form of punishment of human sin in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. But these sins are not layered under the inevitable mystery of the lord. It arrives from our materialism and greed. When a society dies of critical though, then there is no reason for them to live in their physical spheres. It is then that a plague is launched upon them.
Jack London was the first to explain it in scientific terms in literature, attempting an analysis of the socio-cultural economy of a world mired in such disaster. Moreover, the novel reflected the innovations in science, capitalism of its time and the effects of the first world. Even after all these years, the book stands as an exemplary example of a pandemic in fiction. The tragedy of human despair and helplessness in the face of an epidemic and human greed and hustling alongside is quite evidently expressed. The idea that the old medicine wouldn’t work, that the virus would mutate, change character, and that the only way to be away from it was to stay away from one another. There would be numerous unscientific and illogic matters brought up to question power, sometimes with the help of religion, too. For instance, during the red death, the rulers had maintained that this was because the lord had said so in the bible – punishment for man’s sins. And when the lord punishes no one can save us. He uses illness, hunger and dangers to test us, for He expects obedience from us at all times. And when we cross our limits, He is angered. The Latin poet Lucretius had mentioned in his works that plagues weren’t the result of a tussle between people and the gods, but rather when we begin to lose our sense of social responsibilities and our greed increases, this is the blow that falls down on us.
There’s a vivid picture of the London plague in the year 1665 in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe wrote it primarily to record the base reactions of humans at a time like that. The Italian poet Allessandro Manzoni had written about the plague that spread in Milan in 1630. Yet perhaps the first novel truly of the pandemic is perhaps Mary Shelly’s The Last Man, which came out in 1826. It is a dystopian account of a future Earth, ravaged by a mysterious plague and documents the lives of a few survivors.
Though an American, Jack London was an active member of the Socialist Party. An important aspect of his work was a scientific approach to critiquing a warlike and degenerating capitalist society. Therefore, his works on plagues and contagious viral diseases blame the capitalist society’s grip on human society.
London has shown in his science fictional work The Unparalleled Invention, how the US and its European allies would commit biological warfare on the Chinese to keep their populations in their colonies under control. Similarly, one could glance over the Pro-USA media during the Coronavirus crisis and see how the blame is put on China for using the crisis to take control over global leadership. Clearly, for the ruling class nothing is more sacred than their iron grip on the scepter of power and commerce.
The Scarlet Plague can be considered as an important text dealing with the socio-psychological crises of the emergence, horror and eradication of a plague. The scientific advancements of the twentieth century—which saw the likes of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch discovering bacteria, viruses and what not—made London’s work a modern rendition of the age old genre that relied on divine retribution to answer for plagues’ cruelties.
Now, even with vaccines available to save us from many of these plagues, most of the general populace still haven’t changed their idea of how they must respond to a plague. On the contrary, crises such as these, push them down to their acute helplessness.
London had alluded to this in the novel, too, how the people took the illness lightly and figured the scientists would come with a solution for this as well. But when that never arrived and they got to see the plague’s horrifying end-result, the paranoia set in. Granser would talk of how one’s heart would beat faster and the temperature shoot up. The lungs would blacken into tar. The victims would be dead within thirty minutes. Since the bodies couldn’t be buried properly, the billions of germs accelerated the disease’s spread. The doctors weren’t able to come up with any medication that would help. At one point, a vaccine was discovered but it was too late to roll it out. Even the researchers in the laboratories studying these couldn’t save themselves from it.
People lost their trust in science and medicine. An unknown fear managed to wriggle into place instead. Granser, who was once a professor of literature at a university in California recounted to his grandson of that fateful night. The first panic that reverberated through the country. Even the rich who fled in their planes to the mountains took the plague with them. No one had to face something like this before. Granser tells his grandson how crime increased. There was dacoity and drunkenness abound. “A barbarism took hold in our civilization,” He said.
London showed in his book how man has to return to primitive living after losing out in the war with the plague. One notices the Darwinian aspects of the story. Like some of his predecessors London also blamed the ensuing chaos on the social order of the day. Especially, according to London, capitalism couldn’t sidestep from any blame for its part. They pack many of us together for their need for profit and production and this crowd sets the stage for the plague to thrive. For London, these capitalists were the only ones to blame.
The Scarlet Plague isn’t only one of Jack London’s best works, but is a significant siren-call for modern science and medicine in the face of a plague. Only six years after the book, in 1918, the Spanish flu spread around the world, primarily to Europe and the Americas. It is said that about one-fourth of people then were infected by it. Fifty million had died within a few months. Many fictions have been written on it, as well. A recent example is Thomas Mullen’s The last Town on Earth (2006).
Mullen’s novel is centered around the fictional town of Commonwealth, Washington, whose inhabitants agree to quarantine themselves from the outer world to save themselves from the Spanish flu. But the adopted son of the town founder brings in a soldier wounded from the first world war. As the townspeople begin to get sick, distrust begins to brew and they start to turn on one another. One notices in most post-apocalyptic novels that the authors do not support the excessive materialism and unethical pursuit of profit prevalent in their societies. More so, they have blamed this unbridled greed for letting a pandemic of epic proportions take root, for an imbalance is always created when a few men are intoxicated with their money and pleasures. The plague, then, arrives as nature’s revenge. According to Thomas Robert Malthus, this was how it worked. Poverty and famine becomes a natural outcome of such incessant growth.
Now, let’s talk a bit about Camus’s The Plague. Camus had gotten the Nobel Prize at only forty years of age, the second youngest after Kipling. Yet he had also died young, at 57, in a car crash. A pioneering writer and existentialist, he found fame with the novels The Stranger and The Plague. The latter is exceptionally relevant in determining the social, political and philosophical limits of a pandemic. A principle feature in his works is not only the conflict between our lives and the social order we are incased in but also his existentialist philosophy which brings the conversation of life and death to a new dimension. The plague in Camus’s novel doesn’t merrily represent death but is symbolism for many of our fears. Perhaps it is best if we summarize the events of the story now.
The story is set in the coastal city of Oran in colonial Algeria, where quite suddenly, hundreds of rats were found dead. No one could still suspect that this could be signs of a plague. However, after the local newspaper reported the incident, there was widespread fear among the people. The authorities, faced with public outcry, tried to clean up the streets but that only exacerbated the situation. The protagonist Bernard Rieux was a doctor living in one of the flats in the city. He noticed the presence of dead rats there. His building’s concierge had died within a few days after a brief spell of fever. Seeing this, Dr. Rieux consulted the matter with his co-worker Dr. Castel, coming to the conclusion that a plague had arrived in the city. They announced their findings to the authorities but were not taken seriously. The authorities’ incompetence made the situation worse. Their constant assurances acted as a smokescreen against the realities of the matter at hand. But then, the deaths began to rise. The houses were quarantined. In the end, when the medication arrived, it wasn’t enough. A single hospital saw deaths of over thirty every day. The city was put on complete lockdown. Everything was closed off: the streets, railways, even the post, except for certain emergencies. This led to despair among the inhabitants.
A Parisian journalist, Raymond Lambert, visiting the city to research a story on the Arab populace was stuck amidst all this. He tried to flee the city but was unable to, even with the help of the underground. Another character, Father Paneloux, saw this as an opportunity to peddle his beliefs, terming the plague as God’s way of punishing sin. That no matter how much the people tried, it was only through God’s will that we could be redeemed from the plague. The inhabitants of Oran found themselves more attracted to this explanation. Cottard, a “traveling salesman” attempted to commit suicide. Meanwhile, Jean Tarroue, who arrived in the city on vacation, Joseph Grand, and Rieux try to save the inhabitants together.
The situation worsened in August. People were shot if they were found trying to escape the city. There was looting as well. In the end, military rule was established to keep law and order. The authorities had a hard time dealing with the dead bodies. The situation stayed worse through September and October. Dr. Rieux found his wife’s health deteriorating. Yet his heart was in working to better the citizens of the town. Even Cottard had given himself to service, for he thought when all their fate was bound in one, there was no way of escape.
In October, Dr. Castel’s serum was first used as a cure for the plague. But it wasn’t enough to save the magistrate Othon’s son. Paneloux started using the death of the child to propagate for his church, only to be caught in the plague himself.
Othon decided to work in the isolation camp and help others so he could feel closer to his son. Grand, meanwhile contracted the disease. However, he later survived it. The plague began to dissipate around January. People started coming out of their houses. The city opened up. Othon, however, could not survive it. Cottard had to run away after the authorities tried to charge him for his illegal business. Tarroue, too, died in the end. Dr. Rieux was notified from the hospital that his wife had passed away. In February, the city opened up. Communication with the other cities began to be established. The city’s inhabitants were able to reunite with their near ones. Rambert returned to his wife. Cottard lost his mental faculties and was arrested for shooting a man at his home. Grand resumed writing his novel. Yet, in the end, the narrator of the novel remained elusive.
There are surprising similarities between Camus’s The Plague and our present pandemic situation. Especially regarding how the authorities suppressed information and didn’t take the situation with the grave importance it needed, how they delayed preparations and didn’t let the people understand the critical nature of the crises. Also, the lying and bragging when in reality they couldn’t deal with the situation properly. Lockdowns and isolations weren’t properly administered at the right time. How the dead bodies were dealt with showed no planning, how the pandemic was described as a curse from God. The religious leaders providing unhelpful information instead of advising the authorities to take the right action. Many in this instance had tried to run away from the cities to save themselves, leading to the further spread of the disease. Many had found ways to make money out of this volatility. There was a deterioration of law and order; robberies and murders increased. Moreover, being alone for days and seeing the deaths of so many had left a trail of despair and frustration. Then again, many had gone on to selflessly dedicate themselves to help deal with the situation.
Of course, Albert Camus’s novel isn’t so straightforward. The symbolism presents attempts to go beyond simplistic interpretations of colonial criticism in Algeria or the horror of Nazi rule. However, the novel has adapted well with our times–its relevance has only increased.
The thriller writer James Rollins had come out with The Seventh Plague a few years ago. The main gist of the book is whether the plague mentioned in Moses’ ten commandments really occurred, whether the Lord had really punished the pharaohs by raining down this plague. It seemed like whenever there was a crisis of such magnitude present, God would decide to free the Israelites. And after the event in question dissipates, the state of the Israelites would return to where it was before. There have been quite a few novels written dealing with this. Yet one more novel must be mentioned in this discussion.
José Saramago’s Blindness is an important text when understanding the character of a pandemic. The Nobel laureate had brought a unique perspective to his novel, which dealt with an unnamed city where people were faced with an epidemic of blindness. The author called it “the white sickness.” The narrative deals with those who’ve been afflicted by this illness from the start, though it centers around a character referred to as the “Doctor’s wife” who isn’t blind but pretends to be one to accompany her husband to the camp. It’s the story of how the lives of these unnamed characters unfolded in quarantine and the many pleasures and adversity they had to face in an absurdist, comical, yet horrifying scene.
There was widespread panic among the public when the sudden epidemic of blindness hit. Later, the authorities’ inaction and incompetence made the situation nightmarish.
Their lives in desolate, dirty surroundings in the camps are noted in the novel. Of course, this was merely a reflection of the life outside, only accelerated to its extremes.
Tensions escalated in the camp after there were food shortages, brought on by the authorities’ irregularities. The military was deployed to deal with the chaos. But the soldiers, coming in contact with those inside, began to be blinded one by one. The illness took a drastic turn when the medicine didn’t arrive. Rapes and murder increased. Facing famine, the ashram was burned down, resulting in the army abandoning the place. The people inside ventured out to face the outer world. There, too, the people were troubled and fight among each other for food.
The story, meanwhile, advanced with the doctor’s wife and the other inmates of the camp. With the total collapse of the social order, she began to lead the others. People started to take shelter in abandoned buildings. Violence, disease, famine, and discrimination were rampant to the point where mankind seemed to be in crisis. The doctor’s wife and a few others decided to work out a new system at the house they start living in. There, they began to take back the blind who ran away from the camp.
Saramago’s Blindness is of a different complexity than Camus’s The Plague. Even though it was about a pandemic, it didn’t reflect the realism the other had.
But the novel captures the deep realities of an epidemic and the social, human response regarding them, especially when famine, mismanagement, neglect, rape, murder, and robbery begin to take hold of the narrative.
One could also talk about some other novels written with the pandemic in mind. Nico Walker’s Cherry, which the author had written, fashionably, in jail, dealt handsomely with the opioid epidemic in America. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One was about the post-apocalyptic USA ravaged by zombies. There is Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Stephen King had written quite a popular book called The Stand, arguably one of his best works. Even Philip Roth had written a book titled Nemesis, admittedly a lesser work, where he tackled the polio epidemic. Ling Ma’s Severance is a recent account of a pandemic novel, hauntingly close to the one we’re having right now and perhaps the most succinct example of a novel of our times.
Pandemics are of the same age as men. Therefore, it’s only natural for literature to reflect upon it over the ages. There is mention of it in the Iliad, in the Torah. The plague has had a special place in Bangla literature. There has been Mangal Kavyas, religious texts written on the heroism of local deities, on divine personifications of Cholera and Pox. This wasn’t written only for entertainment but as a spiritual work that would guide the people of the time through such horrors.
There isn’t a lack of it in modern Bangla literature, either. There is mention of it in the novels of Bankim Chatterjee. Especially in his work, Anandamath. Readers of Sharat Chandra are also no stranger to pandemic fiction. A famous character in his novel Suresh dies of the plague after helping those suffering from it. In his 1920 work Grihadaha he portrayed a haunting picture of a plague written village named Majhuli. Even in his celebrated Shrikanto, we see the plague in Burma, of news of being quarantined in ships. Of course, the novels themselves aren’t centered on them. However, one wouldn’t be wrong to term Syed Waliullah’s novel Cry O River as pandemic fiction. A writer in the tradition of Camus and Satre, Waliullah’s pandemics are metaphors for the crises and transitions of his existentialist philosophy. The novel is a reminder of how superstition and the degradation of the mind can spread just like a plague, how our blind beliefs and separatism can push us toward our destruction. In tone, it is quite like Jose Saramago’s Blindness. It starts with a schoolteacher named Sokhina, who hears the noise of invisible crying. Soon, many in the village begin to hear this as well. They start to think the crying originates from the Kumurdanga river. They start to worship it to please it. Those who are able to leave the village. Actually, the plague that came down on the villagers was mostly psychological. Though they were well alive physically, their torment was of the mind. It’s why the book belongs to the genre’s canon even without being strictly post-apocalyptic in content. Namely, the tendency for despair to spread about, for people to be unable to respond to it effectively, and how the situation is often exacerbated because of the rich, who flee the area.
A change occurs in society and in the minds of those who live there after a pandemic passes through. The rulers and those being ruled have their specific reactions to it–these base instincts make for pandemic fiction, more so than any derivative stylistic device. Presently, the catastrophe that has befallen the whole world, including my country of Bangladesh, is not entirely out of precedent for humanity. Studying the past is always a help in dealing with present crises. One can hope that the present crisis, too, won’t last long.
A poet, essayist, and novelist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Have worked as a journalist for Dainik Bangla, Bangladesh Sangbad Sansghta (BSS), and Sokaler Khobor. His work includes: In Praise of Mahfuza (1989), Toward the Pasture (1995), Nazrul – Spokesman of the Third World (1996), The Ball’s Odyssey (1998), The Birth of the Maternity Clinic (2006), The Dominance of Language and other essays (2005), Rabindranath’s Travelogues (2010), among considerable others.