Why Do We Heal ? – A character sketch of Dr. Bernard Rieux

Ajish Francis

Goa Medical College

“What do we learn in times of Pestilence ( Pandemic), that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
We may often ask this question to ourselves – Why do we heal? Is it for a moral gratification of doing something good, or is it a religious quest to do something good in the eyes of the creator. Or maybe it’s just a job that gets the meals on your plate.
Of the many themes that Albert Camus’s existentialist classic La Peste or The Plague covers, it presents a different answer to the question through the character of Dr. Bernard Rieux.
Dr. Rieux, a man of thirty-five, is a doctor in the town of Oran, a French Port in the coast of Algeria. Among the population which as described by the narrator, lives solely for the purpose of getting rich, Dr. Rieux stands out due to his selfless nature.
Being the first doctor in Oran to suspect an outbreak of plague following the ominous death of rats and seeing patients present with fever and buboes Dr. Rieux raises an alarm. However, he was met with a lack of support from both the town’s authorities and his fellow doctors who feared public outcry and panic. Reiux presents a pragmatic approach by saying that the focus
should not be on the futile words but rather on the language. It doesn’t matter whether they chose to call it a plague as long as they acted like it was one. His pragmatism is also seen in the way he treats his patients by giving them the whole truth without even an ounce of false hope.

Father Paneloux provides an antithesis to Dr. Rieux, especially when it comes to treating the sick. Paneloux believes that the sickness is a punishment of God and it is acquired by evil-doers as means of repentance, whereas Rieux uses a more humanist approach to the disease. Rieux sees disease for what it is, a sickness that needs to be treated. When a young boy dies of plague Dr. Rieux questions Paneloux’s belief asking him to explain what evil that boy may have committed. Rieux being an atheist knows that it’s precisely because there’s no god that one needs to help fellow humans during a crisis like the present one. Dr Rieux’s friend Monsieur Tarrou is a travelling businessman who happened to be in Oran during the plague. Tarrou sees the plague as an opportunity for selfless service. Unlike Dr. Rieux who only sees treating patients as his job and even starts distancing from his patients emotionally so that it doesn’t impede his work, Tarrou seeks a saintlike gratification by his acts of selflessness. He wishes to obtain a sense of higher self worth through his service. Rieux’s refusal to even feel like having done a noble work shows true selflessness in his act.
Lastly what makes Dr. Rieux’s character most interesting is that he is revealed to be the narrator, a suspense that many readers may guess halfway through the novel. The reason this is important is that Dr. Rieux does this to make his story as impartial as possible. This shows that Rieux sees the plague as a very important account in the history of Oran and doesn’t wish to give an opinion. Likewise Albert Camus the author uses Rieux to give a fictional account of his philosophy without sounding too preachy. Plague here is not a disease but represents the certainty of death and disaster. Rieux (and through him Albert Camus) finds a major problem with the world : the inability to comprehend the suffering of others. The only solution, he says, would be to pile up the dead bodies where everyone could see them, and even then a man would have to know each of the dead individuals for the lesson to really hit home that they were, in fact, people. Dr. Rieux’s conclusion from the events of Oran, is not a nihilistic view that doom is impending upon us but the belief that in the event of a doom you’ll see that humanity will survive on the merit of its collective good.
And finally the answer to why does Dr. Rieux heal ? Because he has to. Every person in the world has a role or a job. Dr. Rieux sees his job as nothing more than a role to play. He’s of theview that a person fulfilling his purpose doesn’t need to feel he’s doing charity when he’s only playing the part of the play. To misquote Shakespeare “ All the worlds a stage, And all the men and women merely players……”

Ajish Francis

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