Albert Camus understood the novel as philosophy translated into images. His characters embody ethical theorems and enact the respective patterns of behaviour. This applies also to Tarrou, besides Rieux and Rambert one of the main characters in Camus’ novel The Plague, which was begun and secretly spread as an underground testimony during the author’s time at the résistance newspaper Combat, to be published in its complete form in 1947.
Four main discourses intersect in Tarrou. His persona is constituted by the discourses of Truth, History, Life and Death. The following is an examination of them and the relations between them. (The relations are signalled to some extent by ‘links’ in capital letters). Since Camus shaped Tarrou in part after himself – Tarrou’s biography resembles Camus’ unfinished autobiography The First Man – this may also shed some light on the intellectual and emotional forces at work in Camus when he was writing down The Plague.
No character in The Plague has a stronger and more explicit relationship to truth than Tarrou. He distrusts the consoling quality of lies. Even when he faces the possibility to be infected with plague and is thus confronted with his own DEATH, he repeatedly insists that Rieux tells him the truth about his condition. (cf. 284, 287) But this is the only occasion when Tarrou is in need of learning the truth. He says about himself that he has “little left to learn.” (129) When asked whether he really thinks he knows everything about life, he answers in the affirmative. (cf. 130)
Tarrou’s relationship to truth is essentially a Freudian one. Taking a stance very close to that of Freud’s Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, he lives life in acceptance of the true yet unappealing nature of man. Freud argues that we are, by nature, murderously inclined toward others, and that civilization can suppress this primitive instinct but can never root it out completely. This is what Tarrou means when he says: “We can’t stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody.” (252) The instinct to kill may break through in all our actions, even in those that seem insignificant to us.
The condemnation of man to his own nature is total; there are no exceptions. Tarrou declares that he himself is like everybody else in not being able to escape from human nature, “each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it.” (253) While Freud chooses to face this truth in order to gain solace from the fact that the war has not made man worse but has only shown his true nature and that a restoration of civilization – this endangered and fragile construction vital for a liveable LIFE – will end the terrible events of war, Tarrou takes a very similar stance, stressing the active part of man. He faces truth in order to enter a struggle that can never be ultimately won: “What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest – health, integrity, purity (if you like) – is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.” (253) Civilization, as Freud points out, is precisely what requires vigilance and renunciation from each individual in order to live. What Freud formulates as a mandatory rule of cultured society, Tarrou voices as an appeal to the individual. Their aim, however, is the same.
Tarrou, like Freud, knows about the illusions to which people tend to resort in order to elude the truth. He remarks with bitter irony that for the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than human life. (cf. 251) He knows that illusions offer comfort and spare us unpleasant feelings, but he also knows that they must be overcome in order to confront the evil instincts that are unalterably rooted in man.
The insight that man’s primitive instincts cannot be eliminated leads Freud to the conclusion that the times of mass killing will return again and again. Tarrou shares this view of HISTORY not only with Freud (and Nietzsche’s The Use and Abuse of History), but also with Rieux, who will conclude his chronicle with a paraphrase of his then dead friend. During their last long talk Rieux has heard Tarrou say “in a low voice that it was never over, there would be more victims, because that was in the order of things.” (255)
Tarrou’s unconditional will to truth and his insight into it are not without origin. A traumatizing personal history has shaped Tarrou and his views. In his account of his youth, he tells his friend Rieux of a very specific event that has given his life a radical turn. His father, a prosecuting attorney, has asked him to hear him speak in court, and Tarrou witnesses how his father clamors for the death of the defendant, who to Tarrou appears to be a very common, frightened human being. (cf. 247) The death sentence is passed. This event produces its devastating effect by Tarrou’s identifying himself with the victim. “I, who saw the whole business trough to its conclusion, felt a far closer, far more terrifying intimacy with that wretched man than my father can ever have felt.” (248) The traumatizing fact for the witness is that despite his identification with the victim, he actually survives the death penalty. We find here what Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, identified as a mechanism of trauma. Cathy Caruth writes on this:
What Freud encounters in the traumatic neurosis is not the reaction to any horrible event but, rather, the peculiar and perplexing experience of survival. If the dreams and flashbacks of the traumatized thus engage Freud’s interest, it is because they bear witness to a survival that exceeds the very claims and consciousness of the one who endures it.
 Bracketed numbers refer to pages in Albert Camus, The Plague.
 Cf. Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”, 297ff.
 Cf. ibid., 285. Note that Freud was in fear of losing his sons who were drafted by the military.
 Cf. ibid., 282.
 Cf. Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”, 280.
 Cf. ibid., 286.
 Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 60.