End without end?

How literature depicts the end of epidemics

By literary scholar Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf (German studies)

Peter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525/30–1569), The Wedding Dance (c. 1566)
© Detroit Institute of Arts

In Albert Camus’ novel The Plague (1947), there are great celebrations when the devastating plague is finally over after nine months:

In streets and squares people were dancing. Within twenty-four hours the motor traffic had doubled and the ever more numerous cars were held up at every turn by merry-making crowds. Every church bell was in full peal throughout the afternoon, and the bells filled the blue and gold sky with their reverberations. Indeed, in all the churches thanksgiving services were being held. But, at the same time, the places of entertainment were packed, and the cafes, caring nothing for the morrow, were producing their last bottles of spirits. A noisy concourse surged round every bar, including loving couples who fondled each other without a thought for appearances. All were laughing or shouting. The reserves of emotion pent up during those many months when for everybody the flame of life burnt low were being recklessly squandered to celebrate this, the red-letter day of their survival. To-morrow real life would begin again, with its restrictions. But for the moment people in very different walks of life were rubbing shoulders, fraternizing. The levelling-out that death’s imminence had failed in practice to accomplish was realized at last, for a few gay hours, in the rapture of escape. (Albert Camus, The Plague. Translated by Stuart Gilbert, London: Penguin, 1948, 241-242)

As great as the joy over surviving the epidemic is, sceptical undertones are also audible in the passage: “To-morrow real life would begin again, with its restrictions”, and “for a few gay hours, in the rapture of escape”. The end of the plague does not witness everything dissolving into bliss: before the novel ends, the elderly Cottard loses his mind and begins shooting people and animals. And the narrator and central protagonist Dr Rieux knows that the plague will return “because the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good” (252). The plague is over for now, but there can be no talk of a happy ending, especially since the end of the novel remembers the victims once again. For those who have lost someone close to them, and this includes Dr Rieux himself, life will never be the same again. The fact that the epidemic is over but not past, and that it can return – this seems to mirror our own situation.

Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year in London (1722), which is about the plague of 1665, makes things a little easier. After the plague and its effects have been depicted in great detail (see the dossier “God’s will/God’s succour?”), it seems to be God’s decision alone to end the evil: “it pleas’d God by the continuing of the Winter Weather to restore the Health of the City, that by February following, we reckon’d the Distemper quite ceas’d” (Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year [1722], ed. by John Mullan, The Novels of Daniel Defoe, ed. by WR Owens and PN Furbank, vol. 7, London and New York: Routledge, 2016, 206). Narratively, then, no further effort is required, and further reflection is unnecessary.

Nor does Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (1912) bother much with narrating the end of the epidemic after the protagonist has died of cholera and of love. While the origin and spread of the cholera epidemic are depicted in some detail, the plague seems to have fulfilled its purpose and loses its significance with Aschenbach’s death. The narrative is over and the reader may think that the cholera will probably also have receded after a reasonable period of time – but this thought no longer seems important, i.e. it is irrelevant to the concern of the narrative.

The same is true for Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob (2014), where there is repeated talk of plagues, these grounding and motivating the narrative. The end of the plague, however, is of no narrative relevance. Chapter 21, “Of the Plague that Descends upon Lwów in the Autumn of 1759”, describes the spread and contagion, or rather people’s speculations in this regard, with religious explanations (God’s punishment) existing alongside attempts at providing scientific explanations. The end of the plague is at best a hope that people have: “Now they’re all counting on winter to save them, since freezing is the antithesis of rot, and therefore serious illness should vanish or at least weaken tremendously throughout the winter months” (Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob. Translated by Jennifer Croft. London: Fitzcarraldo, 2014, 393).

The somewhat grotesque ending of Gabriel García Márquez’s 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera, which depicts two elderly lovers on a ship permanently sailing back and forth between two distant ports under the plague or cholera flag, relies on a plague that will not end (see the dossier “Images, Metaphors, Allegories”). The couple, Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, who have only found each other in old age, fear that, when they have to go ashore, they will face social sanctions because of their late love. We of course know that the death of one or the other will put an end to their love on the plague ship. In most literary texts that speak of an epidemic, the end is desired within the diegesis, but the diegesis itself benefits from the occurrence and manifestations of the plague. In Marquez’s novel, though, cholera is a most welcome condition that enables the elderly couple to enjoy a late, though temporally limited, happiness.

The end of José Saramago’s Blindness (1995) is quite intricate. Here, a strange disease affecting the eye causes all those infected, and this means almost everybody in the novel, suddenly to go blind. Those affected do not see black before their eyes, but go blind in glaring whiteness (see the dossier “Precautions and Rules”). The social order collapses as a result of the widespread blindness. But the tide then turns somewhat abruptly, and people regain their sight one by one. Only the doctor’s wife, who escaped infection and was able to keep a small group of blind people together, suddenly seems to lose her sight. Thus, the novel ends in a similarly ambivalent way to The Plague:

The doctor’s wife got up and went to the window. She looked down at the street full of refuse, at the shouting, singing people. Then she lifted her head up to the sky and saw everything white, It is my turn, she thought. Fear made her quickly lower her eyes. The city was still there. (José Saramago, Blindness. Translated by Giovanni Pontiero. London: Vintage, 2005, 309).

The matter is perhaps even more complex: the doctor’s wife sees “everything white”, but she can still perceive the city below the window. Perhaps she is not going blind at all. Might there be after all a state between seeing and not seeing, between epidemic and non-epidemic, between end and non-end?