Service to community depends heavily on the individual community member’s notion of self, which is in turn heavily influenced by his culture. This paper explores the differing notions of community exemplified by two very different main characters: Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ The Plague, and Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama in Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism. This paper will show that each character’s service to his community, or lack thereof, directly reflects his culturally defined role.
In Camus’ The Plague, Rieux begins the novel far more absorbed in his personal life than in his professional responsibilities as Oran’s only physician. His wife’s long illness necessitates a visit to a sanatorium out of town, and her leaving triggers tremendous guilt in him, both personal and professional, as seen here: “he begged her to forgive him; he felt he should have looked after her better, he’d been most remiss” (Camus 10). Rieux’s role as husband supersedes that of doctor, initially.
In Patriotism, we see the opposite is true of Takeyama. His role as an officer of the Imperial troops subordinates his role as husband, so much so that Takeyama’s “honeymoon trip was dispensed with on the grounds that these were times of national emergency” (Mishima 1).
The two characters differ wildly in their views toward their roles in the community also. Rieux, though a competent doctor and essentially kind hearted, exhibits a slightly annoyed air during the early days of the plague, and as the disease wears on, this annoyance graduates to full blown resentment.
“The whole of the following day was spent, so far as Rieux was concerned, in long drives to every corner of the town, in parleyings with the families of the sick and arguments with the invalids. Never had Rieux known his profession to weigh on him so heavily” (Camus 59).
Takeyama, conversely, observes his role as officer, soldier, and defender of the Imperial family with a religious austerity that borders on obsession. “On the god shelf below the stairway, alongside the tablet from the Great Ise Shrine, were set photographs of their Imperial Majesties, and regularly every morning, before leaving for duty, the lieutenant would stand with his wife at this hallowed place and together they would bow their heads low” (Mishima 2).
Both characters are products of the cultures they live and work in. Rieux, although an important member of the community, remains first and foremost an individual, amongst other individuals. The townspeople of Oran habitually place their own needs first, and identify less as a cohesive community, and more as a collection of individuals with a loose geographic connection.
“Being ill is never agreeable, but there are towns that stand by you, so to speak, when you are sick; in which you can, after a fashion, let yourself go. An invalid…likes to have something to rely on,…but at Oran the violent extremes of temperature, the exigencies of business,…and the very nature of its pleasures call for good health. An invalid feels out of it there” (Camus 5).
Takeyama, by contrast, utterly identifies with the community represented by the Imperial troops. His connection to his fellow officers and soldiers is deeply emotional and intimately connected to his psychological well being. Upon discovering that the cohesive community he imagined himself a part of is actually riven with discord, infighting, and rebelliousness, the schism between his fantasy community and his real community rends his soul.
“Profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest colleagues had been with the mutineers from the beginning, and indignant at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops attacking Imperial troops, he took his officer’s sword and ceremonially disemboweled himself” (Mishima 1).
Lastly, a significant disparity in the experience of time exists between these two characters, which also relates to their respective views of community. A good deal of time elapses between the imposition of the quarantine and the moment when Rieux and the other townspeople take action and begin helping one another:
“precisely when things seemed worst, people began to pull themselves together. Tarrou organized a group of volunteers to combat the plague. Rambert, on the eve of his escape, chose to remain and fight;…It was not a question of heroism; people hardly had enough freedom of choice to be heroic.
They simply decided to do what they could, even if their resistance was absurd. And perhaps, suggests Camus, to continue upholding one’s human obligations when there seems the least possibility of fulfilling them is, if not heroism, the best men can do” (“Community of Death” 98).
For Takeyama, on the other hand, he takes action the instant he learns of the mutiny, and his action is to flee, via death. “Well, then . . .” The lieutenant’s eyes opened wide. Despite this exhaustion they were strong and clear, and now for the first time they looked straight into the eyes of his wife. “Tonight I shall cut my stomach.”
(Mishima 3). His culturally defined role as soldier leaves no room for any other action, in his mind.
In Camus’ The Plague and Mishima’s Patriotism, each character’s culturally defined role ostensibly dictates the actions he takes to serve his community in a time of great strife. Ironically enough, Takeyama, the character who displays the most obvious adherence to the idea of community, is the first to leave his. Rather than stay and help his community during a civil war, he immediately kills himself and abandons it. It is Rieux, the reluctant community member, who remains to minister to the needs of his afflicted neighbors.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage Books-Random House, 1991. Print.
“Community of Death.” Time 16 August 1948: 98. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.
Mishima, Yukio. Patriotism. Trans. G.W. Sargent. Mutantfrog Travelogue. WordPress, 19 October 2010. Web. 18 October 2010.