What Literature Can Teach Us About Epidemics Authors explore questions of morality, evil, solidarity and survival in Albert Camus' The Plague, Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders and Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers.
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'A Matter Of Common Decency': What Literature Can Teach Us About Epidemics

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'A Matter Of Common Decency': What Literature Can Teach Us About Epidemics

'A Matter Of Common Decency': What Literature Can Teach Us About Epidemics

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So what can literature teach us about how society responds to epidemics? That question has been on the mind of NPR's Melissa Block.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Professor Alice Kaplan has been scrambling to revise her lectures for the French literature class she teaches at Yale University. On the syllabus, coincidentally, for her online class, it's "The Plague," Albert Camus' novel from 1947 about a bubonic plague epidemic that ravages a quarantined city in Algeria.

ALICE KAPLAN: I never imagined I would be teaching this novel in the midst of an epidemic. I never imagined I'd need to give a trigger warning for teaching Camus' "The Plague."

BLOCK: Kaplan is just back from France, where, she says, you can't pick up a newspaper without seeing a reference to the novel.

KAPLAN: People are saying in the French press, what do you absolutely need to read in this time? You need to read "The Plague" - almost as though this novel were a vaccine, not just a novel that can help us think about what we're experiencing but something that can help heal us.

BLOCK: Camus used the plague as an allegory for war - a reflection on the Nazi occupation of France and the stubborn acts of resistance against it. As his character Dr. Rieux explains, fighting the plague is not a question of heroism; it's a matter of common decency. Rieux says, I don't know what it means for other people. But in my case, I know that it consists in doing my job.

In the novel, the plague is more than a diabolical external force imposing its will. Each of us has the plague within him, Camus writes. No one on earth is free from it.

KAPLAN: I think he's talking about our shadow. I think he's talking about our capacity to do harm. He says, at some point, there's more to admire in man than to despise. But you know, it's a contest.

BLOCK: And that same contest is laid bare in another novel about bubonic plague, this one set in 1665 in England, the village of Eyam.

GERALDINE BROOKS: I mean, it's one of our most primal fears as human beings - the idea of this silent, stalking killer.

BLOCK: In her novel "Year Of Wonders," Geraldine Brooks draws on the true story of the town, which did something extraordinary - it chose to voluntarily close itself off, keeping the plague inside. By some estimates, two-thirds of the villagers perished awful deaths.

BROOKS: It was huge cost to the villages because, you know, a lot of those might have survived if they fled early in the outbreak. But on the other hand, that act of self-sacrifice meant that the plague did not spread beyond Eyam into the surrounding communities. And so many thousands, perhaps, of lives were saved.

BLOCK: It's that moral test that Brooks finds so provocative.

BROOKS: How did this life-and-death decision come about? What was the thing that moved people's hearts? And then once you've made that decision, how do you live with the consequences of it when, day following day, you lose another person that you love?

BLOCK: Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, she's thinking about this question a lot. Who will I be?

BROOKS: Will I be my best self, or will I become a selfish monster? Will I be the person pushing my neighbor away to grab the last roll of toilet paper, on a trivial level?

BLOCK: In her novel "The Dreamers," published last year, writer Karen Thompson Walker conjures up a mysterious virus, a deadly sleeping sickness that descends on a college town in California. Before the town is cordoned off by the military, there's one last wedding - and a bride who's pale and woozy.

KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: (Reading) Whoever kisses her cheek that night or dances too close or clinks her flute of champagne, whoever touches her hand to admire the ring, whoever catches the bouquet at the end of the night - all of them, every one, is exposed. This is how the sickness travels best, through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love.

BLOCK: In Walker's novel, characters confront a shortage of face masks. There's a panicked run on supermarkets, talk of it all being a hoax and, just as now, the impossibility of knowing what's to come.

WALKER: That's something that I'm interested in in general as a writer - what it's like for human beings to live with a kind of radical uncertainty. You know, we never do know what's going to happen. But there are certain times, like the situation in my book or the situation we're in now, where that feeling of uncertainty is right at the forefront.

BLOCK: As for the literature she's turning to in this uncertain, troubled time, Walker says it's not books about disease and dystopia. She's been finding solace in the poetry of Mary Oliver.

Melissa Block, NPR News.

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