It was written during the Second World War, when-not satisfied with the ten million deaths achieved by the first one-the most powerful nations of the world were doing their best to kill even more. Camus had a different agenda. Published in June, 1947, barely two years after the war ended in Europe, his novel says nothing directly about the war, but in telling the story of what a Bubonic plague does to the coastal Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s, it symbolically represents what war did to Europe in the same period. At one point, in fact, the narrator of the novel openly compares plagues to wars. Both, he writes, take us equally by surprise, and both commonly last longer than we expect them to. Also, neither one is ever wholly defeated. Like the plague, war will always come again.
But this is only a part of the final message of the book, which is narrated by a doctor who tells his own story: a doctor who sees his patients dying all around him and yet who never stops trying to save and comfort them, and never stops inspiring others to do likewise. In the end, he says, this tale records what had to be done and what must be "done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts." If those words seem uncannily prophetic, consider what he says about how the fight against terror should be waged. "Despite their personal afflictions," he says, it must be waged "by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers."