“The only picture I carried away with me of that day’s proceedings was a picture of the criminal. I have little doubt he was guilty, of what crime is no great matter. That little man of about thirty, with sparse, sandy hair, seemed so eager to confess everything, so genuinely horrified at what he’d done and what was going to be done with him, that after a few minutes I had eyes for nothing and nobody else. He looked like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light. His tie was slightly awry, he kept biting his nails, those of one hand only, his right…. I needn’t go on, need I? You’ve understood, he was a living human being” (170).
In this passage Tarrou explains to Dr. Rieux the reasons for his own attitude towards life and towards society as a whole. It is a pivotal moment in the novel which serves to crystallise several of its concerns regarding the human condition and the potential for engagement in a world whose institutions are fundamentally incapable of doing justice to experience. Tarrou tells Rieux that he one day accompanied his father to a trial in which a man was found guilty of a crime and sentenced to death for it. It was the experience of watching this that persuaded Tarrou that he would never be a part of a society that would conduct such barbarism and that he would therefore never allow himself to sanction murder of any kind. It is this conviction that motivates Tarrou’s lack of political affiliation, but it is equally that enables to work hard on simply alleviating the suffering of the victims of the plague without judgement and for no other than to relieve suffering.
Crucial to this attitude is the figure of this criminal as presented in the passage above. The description works in order to draw attention to the absurdity of a bourgeois court and to the way in which it generates the figure of the criminal out of the person who stands in the dock. Camus’s writing serves to place this criminalized object at a distance from the actual living person. It clear that he is terrified, although Camus makes it clear that this fear stems from a fear of an abstract idea of having committed a ‘crime’ and of the material reality of punishment, much more than it does from an awareness of the particular wrong that he may have committed. Law in this description is shown to be an inherent abstraction that, rather than dealing with material reality, deals with invention and self-satisfied ideas of ‘right.’ The sense of the absurdity of this situation is generated through the comical description of the man as a blinded ‘owl,’ although this description also carries a sense of horror as the individual looks into the heart of a law that will condemn him as a criminal within a murderous abstraction. The final statement of the paragraph shows Tarrou’s refusal to sanction this legal abstraction. He insists that the criminal is a ‘person’ and not a ‘criminal.’ This insistence not only explains again why Tarrou is unable to engage in the abstractions of politics but also forms a mirror of the tenderness that both Tarrou and Dr. Rieux are concerned with when they aid victims of the plague.
Both politics and law deal in the circulation of abstractions, however treating the dying and the suffering requires a direct attention to material reality and a singular response to pain. It is this response that conditioned the young Tarrou’s response to the criminal just as it conditions his response to the victims around him at the time of the novel.
“They dressed and started back. Neither had said a word, but they were conscious of being perfectly at one, and the memory of this night would be cherished by them both. When they caught sight of the plague watchman, Rieux guessed that Tarrou, like himself, was thinking that the disease had given them a respite, and this was good, but now they must set their shoulders to the wheel again” (175).
This passage concerns the feeling of that Rieux and Tarrou experience as they spontaneously for a swim in the waters around Algiers. Once again, it can be seen to refer to several of the key elements in the novl, most importantly the finitude of life and the idea of friendship which can be experienced spontaneously and in moments free from care. The two are able to share a moment of freedom together, and escape the responsibilities which they have in the world. Crucially, this moment is silent and it does not involve any direct political action or discourse, rather Camus suggests that the happiness which the friends experience is free from the weight of political ideology and that it comes simply in a moment of friendship this does not need vocalisation nor further explanation. Freedom from the world in this sense is experienced as something that cannot be legislated or related overtly to organisations, but rather as something that occurs spontaneously between individuals without overarching structures, individuals are able to relate to each other as equals.
The paragraph contains a tension that is key to the novel. This tension exists between the actual meaninglessness of life and suffering and the fact that this does not obviate actually existing responsibility but rather leads individuals who are able to care more about others than they would in systems of enforced meaning. Dr. Rieux, and especially Tarrou, are existentialist characters who do not assign a great meaning to their actions. This paragraph demonstrates Camus’ concern with the fact that this attitude does not preclude happiness, and neither does it assign an overt meaning to it. Rather, just as the two characters are able to respond to the needs of others without a need for a further justification, so they are occasionally able to enjoy the happiness of a free moment without the need for a greater justification. The capacity to care and to live are shown as conditioned by a refusal to assign a transcendental meaning to either of these things.
It is by dramatising this feeling, alongside demonstrating the real necessities that the two characters face in terms of aiding the plague relief that this paragraph can be seen as one of the most beautiful and important in the novel as a whole.