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Plague and Patients: Relationships Developed in the Hot Zone and the Plague

Abby King
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines plague as “an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis” (“Plague,” 2017). The plague is typically transmitted through animals or mites, and spreads very quickly. Patients contracting plague often develop flu-like symptoms, and then specific symptoms according to the strain they are infected with. The plague has been found on every continent, and can be caused by viral or bacterial infection. If patients contract bacterial plague, antibiotics can be given to cure the disease; if patients contract viral plague, antiviral medication can be given for relief of symptoms, but only vaccines can cure the disease. The WHO suggests that, if an outbreak occurs, there are multiple necessary steps to manage the outbreak: find and stop the source of infection, protect health workers, ensure correct treatment, isolate patients, obtain specimens, disinfect, and ensure safe burial practices (“Plague,” 2017). 

The most commonly known outbreak in history was the Black Death, an outbreak of the bubonic plague. The Black Death killed nearly 50 million people, extinguishing over half the population of Europe (“The Black Death,” 2005). There have been numerous accounts of plague in literature, ranging from poems to narratives to nonfiction pieces. In these literary pieces, plague is often characterized by key features: panic, infectious spread, and death. In this literary analysis, I will compare two pieces on plague, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and Albert Camus’ The Plague.  By analyzing how each author characterizes the plague, I will show how these characterizations affect the relationships between readers and characters contracting the plague, and which piece results in a greater flow of emotion.

Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone is a nonfiction piece describing the outbreak of the Ebola virus in America. Preston spans back in history to detail previous outbreaks of other filoviruses in Africa. Preston follows the initial infection of a human, and shows scenes where others had the chance to get infected, and where one doctor treating the infected patient contracts the disease. The Hot Zone is a thriller-type book that seems to be fictional, but is based off true events in history. This novel characterizes the Ebola-like virus as infectious, bloody, and paranormal-like. Much like The Plague, this novel focuses on the contagious disease and how it affects patients, doctors, and bystanders. 

Albert Camus’ The Plague is a fictional piece about a plague breaking out in a small town in Algeria. Camus tells the story of a doctor, his colleagues, and a priest dealing with plague in their town. Camus goes into detail of each person and their story, and how the epidemic affects them as individuals, and as a group. The Plague is less a thriller than an emotional narrative that allows you to understand and develop a relationship with each character. This novel characterizes the plague as highly contagious, painful, a punishment, and monotonous. These two novels share many characterizations of plague; however, some characteristics are different, allowing the two pieces to bring key differences in how readers interpret plague, and how they develop relationships with patients affected by plague. Preston’s dramatically infectious, bloody, and paranormal-like description of the Marburg virus makes his novel a thriller, which makes the reader more focused on the gore and paranormal characteristics of this plague, rather than focusing on the patients themselves. On the other hand, Camus’ philosophical writing makes readers focus more on the characters, their beliefs, and their experiences during a time of plague. Ultimately, the difference in writing styles and characteristics of plague brings out more emotion in Camus’ writing as opposed to Preston’s writing.

Common symptoms of plague found in literature and media are flu-like symptoms, followed by a devastating fit of symptoms specific to each plague. Common devastating symptoms include seizures, bleeding, lung failure, etc. Preston describes the Marburg virus as hemorrhagic, where patients spew blood out of nearly every orifice. Patients get infected with a virus that “replicates” itself and consumes the body with disease. Patients with Marburg lose expression, emotion, and all life-like characteristics (Preston, 14-15). In The Plague, Camus characterizes the plague as consuming, where patients form “buboes…clogging the joints” (Camus, 213). Patients with this plague become unresponsive, as they lose the ability to breathe, and cry out in screams (Camus, 217). 

Both texts have similar symptoms of the traditional representation of plague: loss of reactivity and liveliness, fever, pain, and rapid destruction of the body. However, Camus’ plague involves buboes and lung failure, whereas Preston’s plague involves massive internal bleeding. Camus describes the plague as a fairly quick death, but not as quick as Preston. This is shown by the development of bodily failure, from loss of reactivity, to inability to breathe, and finally death after intense pain. Preston instead makes the disease progress extremely quick, shown by Charles Monet’s rapid deterioration before being able to be admitted into a hospital for help (Preston, 23-24). By explaining the symptoms for each plague, Camus and Preston create a great distance between the two plagues, and highlight the progression of the disease. 

By highlighting the progression of the disease, each story gives the reader a different approach for the patients affected. In The Plague, readers feel bad for the patients affected by the plague, mainly because they experience the slow progression of plague and begin to develop a relationship with the characters. In The Hot Zone, readers barely develop a relationship with the patients affected since their progression from infection to death happens so rapidly. By describing the symptoms and the speed of progression through the disease, Camus makes readers feel bad for those affected by plague, while Preston makes readers feel less emotionally attached and more abhorred by patients with plague. 

Both of these texts also consider how doctors treat patients who are infected with highly contagious diseases. With the historic plague, doctors often become martyrs when treating patients because although the diseases are extremely contagious and deadly, physicians put their lives at risk to treat patients and search for a cure. In The Hot Zone, Dr. Musoke treated Charles Monet with nearly perfect technique, with a minor setback when Monet vomits in Dr. Musoke’s mouth. He approaches the infectious, bleeding patient with a calm, yet focused manner, fighting hard to figure out the cause of Monet’s bleeding, and struggling to save his life (Preston, 24-29). All the while helping to save Monet, Dr. Musoke contracts the disease and falls ill (Preston, 29-31). By showing Dr. Musoke trying to save Monet’s life and then contracting the plague, Preston shifts the reader’s emotions and allows them to feel bad for those affected by plague. When Dr. Musoke is ill, he works with colleagues to desperately find a cause for his symptoms, all the while deteriorating rapidly. By showing this scene in the novel, Preston stretches out the progression period for this patient, allowing the readers to develop a relationship with Dr. Musoke, and ultimately feel bad for him. This stretched out progression is in contrast to the scene where Monet is sick, since his progression happens so rapidly, readers cannot develop a relationship with him, but rather feel disgusted by his illness. 

Similarly, in The Plague, Camus sympathetically portrays patients with plague by showing doctors and the priest present as a young boy dies from the plague (Camus, 214-217). Throughout this scene, Camus spreads out the progression of the boy’s disease, making it seem like he suffers for very long, even though the progression of the plague has previously been described as quick. Camus slows down the scene by flipping back and forth from the suffering boy to the adults observing the boy’s death. By doing this, Camus gives the reader breaks in the progression of the disease, forcing the reader to feel as though the boy has been suffering for days. Camus also makes the reader feel as though the boy will survive, making his death even more devastating and emotional. This makes the reader develop a strong relationship with the boy, as well as the adults suffering through observation, leading to a heightened emotionality towards those affected by plague. In both novels, characterizing plague by how doctors approach patients make the reader feel more attached to those affected, and allows for greater emotion in the text.

Throughout literature, plague is often described as infectious, anxiety-creating, and deadly. Symptoms for plagues are often very similar, and the course often develops from seemingly harmless symptoms to devastating and deadly symptoms, all of which happen very rapidly and without control from physicians. Albert Camus’ The Plague and Robert Preston’s The Hot Zone present nonfiction and fictional accounts of outbreaks of plagues throughout history. Both novels characterize plague by symptoms and progression, as well as by how physicians and outsiders approach those infected. Both stories make you feel attached to characters that contracted the plague, but Camus presents a more emotional account of plague. Preston highlights the gruesomeness of the Marburg virus, and how quickly it kills. He also notes that the virus did not affect as many people as the reader may have expected going into the novel. On the other hand, Camus describes the lives of his characters, the atmosphere of the town, and the progression as much slower, allowing the reader to develop a more intense and meaningful relationship with characters. The relationship readers form with characters makes Camus’ account more philosophical and humanized, as opposed to Preston’s thriller focus on blood and the gore behind how the virus replicates and spreads within the body. By making his writing more philosophical and relatable, Camus presents readers with an account of inevitable death; Preston lacks this philosophy with his horror approach to illness and suffering.


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