In this colloquy, we will read two novels that resonate powerfully today. Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) is set in the little town of Oran during a bubonic outbreak and José Saramago’s Blindness (1995) takes place in a sudden “white blindness” outbreak in a nameless country. Both epidemics and the characters’ many reactions to what upended their worlds speak forcefully to what is happening to us in 2020. In our colloquy, we will ponder the possible meanings of the symbolic bubonic plague in Camus’s novel and the “white blindness” in Saramago’s and consider the questions the authors pose about the nature of humanity, morality, and redemption. To what extent and how can we, or should we, take moral responsibility in such a crisis? Amid horror, what, if anything, “saves” us? Which novel offers the better parallel to what is occurring world-wide today?
Blindness shows us the worst that can befall man; it also shows us the best of mankind, what man is capable of to save not just himself but humanity. The matter-of-fact voice of the narrator as he (or she) describes the events of the novel as well as the range and behavior of the characters creates the world of the novel. Because Saramago uses little punctuation and often no speech tags or quotation marks for dialogue, we will investigate these and other stylistic decisions and think about how they help to carry his message.
In contrast, The Plague is stylistically a less demanding novel than Blindness, less bleak in tone and yet equally rich in its probing of the meaning of life. As readers, we will see ourselves mirrored in the characters in the town of Oran. Interested in our essential need to “understand” and in man’s many ways of finding meaning, Camus explores the various “systems” of belief that we have created to help us through the inexplicable. Ultimately, he, like Saramago, helps us understand the nature of courage in the face of the uncontrollable.
In this colloquy, we will share what we notice as we read or reread these powerful novels and consider how well each holds up both as a literary work and as inspiration or warning for our times and ourselves.
Tyler Knowles retired after 34 years of teaching English and chairing the English Department at the Winsor School, an independent school for girls in Boston. She also taught English and writing at the University of Wisconsin, Boston University, and Dartmouth College before Winsor. More recently, she served nine years on the GSA Board. She and her husband, Larry Flood divide their time between a shore house on the East Blue Hill Rd and a cottage at Parker Ridge.
Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947)
José Saramago’s Blindness (1995)
If possible, read both novels before the first session
Please bring (or submit beforehand) a discussion question for each session.
Note: Neither novel has chapter numbers although The Plague has five parts. I have numbered the chapters for myself consecutively: 1-17 for Blindness and 1-29 for The Plague. I encourage you to do the same so that we can find ourselves on the same pages when we discuss both works.
We will begin each class with observations (brief) about the text we read. Between these and the discussion questions, we will have plenty to discuss!
Session One (Nov. 16 at 1:30)—The Plague– the whole novel.
Reading questions for The Plague, first session: Please also bring one of your own questions.
Session Two (Nov. 30 @ 1:30)—first half of Blindness (to p. 185)
Explanation of Lacan’s Big Other
Reading Questions for Blindness, second session: Please also bring one of your own questions.
Session Three (Dec 7 @ 1:30)—the remainder of Blindness
Reading Questions for Blindness, third session: Please also bring one of your own questions.
Session Four (Dec 14 @ 1:30)—Comparing, contrasting, wrap up of both novels
Reading Questions for the final discussion, fourth session: Please also bring one of your own questions.
Documents Referenced in Our Discussions:
New York Review of Books: Tony Judt (contains Afterword in Buss translation) On The Plague – Tony Judt
Tyler Knowles: Parallels between Camus’ The Plague and our present day experience with Covid 19 epidemic. PARALLELS BETWEEN THE PLAGUE AND 2020
New Yorker Article : Jill Lepore on Literature about Plagues: Jill Lepore: Plague Fables – Note: I could not get a good PDF from this article so it is a link to an online version.
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