Camus’ The Plague: Anxiety, inferiority and internal conflict

Literature has this unique feature of offering us a safe space to experience emotions and to identify with the characters we read about. The excitement and joy are there but without the risk of disappointment or loss.


In this article, I am proposing a brief exploration of the character of Cottard from Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague. I hope the analysis will shed some light on his struggles and will help the reader understand how counselling can help us when faced with anxiety, inferiority feelings and internal conflicts. 

The novel 

Albert Camus’ novel The Plague was published in 1947 and speaks about an awful plague that hit the city of Oran in the 1940s. This was based on a real event, the 1849 cholera epidemic that hit the city of Oran and killed a significant number of inhabitants.

The character 

The character we are going to have a look at is Cottard. We get acquainted with Cottard when Doctor Rieux and a commissioner visit him because of his attempted suicide. We don’t get a lot of insights into his character, except his suicide attempt. We find little about Cottard’s existence before the plague, except that he was perceived as a “desperate man” and that he was guilty of some crime that went unpunished. Conclusions about his character are drawn from his manifestations and self-reflection in the context of the plague that wreaked havoc in the city of Oran.

He is an eternal outsider, in conflict with the world. An outsider before, during, and after the plague. He has committed some crimes that went unpunished, but he is in a perpetual state of anxiety caused by a potential, but quite unlikely, investigation. His situation improved significantly during the plague, unlike anyone else. Cottard’s internal experience of the circumstances is in stark contrast to how the other characters experienced the same tragic event.

We see the depth of Cottard’s inner world when the plague reaches its peak and then its end. It is then that we have a glimpse into his conflict with himself and the world. 

During the plague, he is “the one man who never appeared exhausted or discouraged and remained a living image of satisfaction”. Once the plague is in full swing, Cottard notices the consequence of everyone being “in the same boat”. This sheds some light on the way he interprets the situation. The plague offers him a feeling of freedom – anxiety is no longer draining and tiring - “you cannot accumulate illnesses”. He is in a good mood. Others are finally getting a taste of the struggles he’s been going through: anxiety, loneliness, desperation. Equality is sweet when you feel inferior for such a long time.

He seems to be fluent in the new official language of Oran - loneliness and anxiety. Cottard is now in a privileged position. His state of anxiety is not improving, but it is this interpretation of reality that changes his mood. The way he perceives himself, others and the world has shifted dramatically. Insights into the internal experiences of others come easily for him because he has walked that walk before: – “I think they are miserable because they don’t let themselves go. And I know what I’m talking about”. As Tarrou concludes – “the plague suits him” and “Cottard is at ease in terror”.

When the plague comes to an end, Cottard reverts back to his state of anxiety, consternation and internal conflict. He hides under the mask of scepticism but the surrounding optimism “instead of filling Cottard with joy, had produced reactions which varied from day to day, but which ranged from bad temper to depression”. It is the reaction of loss and grief. Losing a state of bliss, sadness for being again alone in his anxiety and loneliness, in the misery and despair of his own life. Inferiority and rejection are on the horizon again – “They’ll open the gates and eventually, and you’ll see, they’ll all drop me”.

He becomes unstable and starts fighting with everyone. Coming back to the life he had before is not an option. He tasted better and that leads to him feeling stuck – he cannot accept coming back to the old life but the life he loved for the last months was a by-product of a temporary and extraordinary circumstance that now is gone. No way back, no way forward. He is stuck and that gets to him.

Towards the end of the novel, he goes into a state of frenzy, starts fighting and gets arrested. Quite ironic considering that one of his joys during the plague was that police were no longer interested in older crimes so he couldn’t get arrested. It is a real occurrence that people who manage to get away with a crime engage in reckless behaviour again, which gets them behind bars. This process has been documented by psychologists and psychiatrists, with Karl Menninger’s seminal work Man Against Himself being a stellar exposition of the phenomenon. 

Anxiety, inferiority feelings and internal conflict: is Cottard’s world just fiction?

1. The burden of our internal conflicts is often heavier than external events.

Cottard could get infected and die like anyone else. However, that was not paramount for him because the effects of the plague had soothed his primary pains – anxiety, fear of rejection and loneliness. Death is less than the living hell of his internal life. Alas, the internal conflict is far from being resolved, it just got suspended and postponed because of a major event that caught all the attention.

Practical application

Is there something about Cottard’s safeguarding strategies that resonates with you? Numbing, postponing, or suspending your internal experience is utterly unhelpful in the long run. Anaesthetics only work for a short time. The pain does not go away until the underlying issue gets addressed, which should constitute the main therapeutic goal. 

Cottard is unwilling to process what happened to him prior to the plague. He also fails to use the time to set his life back on track, in preparation for the post-plague life. The outcomes do not have to be the same for you. 

How does counselling help?

Working with a counsellor helps to put things into perspective. You are encouraged to notice behavioural patterns that hinder a fruitful relationship with yourself, others, and the world. Emotional barriers to change are addressed and processed. You can be enabled to take the reins of impactful paradigm shifts, one step at a time. 

2. The internal experience and what we make of it. Deal with the misery in your life before it destroys you.

It might be easy to jump to conclusions – and judgements – about Cottard’s experience. From the outside it is easy to label Cottard as an immoral individual, rejoicing in a situation that brings calamity, suffering and pain to the community. But does he realistically make the plague any better or any worse by his actions? Could it be that he is only trying to make sense of a new environment, whilst navigating a plethora of emotions? Should we ask him to feel guilty for the way he feels, or to repress his feelings? Have you ever been told you are guilty for feeling in a certain way? Did the feeling subside, or did you feel worse? 

Yet, there is an element of Cottard relishing an objectively tragic situation – which brings a slant of reprehensibility. He is also aware of that, which is why he is not open about his feelings throughout the unfolding of the plague. And that did not end up well for him either. 

So, it seems that repressing feelings is not the solution, nor is fervidly enjoying them without thinking of others. What do we do then?

Practical application

As dramatic as Cottard is, there is a strong realism to his story. Oftentimes, we tend to drift to a level of carelessness so low that we become blind and deaf to the suffering around us. We look the other way, purposefully ignoring the pain of others – we’re already too enthralled in our own pain. 

How does counselling help?

It could be that Cottard failed to deal with what contributed to him feeling miserable. He made use of emotional crutches. In your case, simply getting this far with the article is a step towards losing the faulty mechanisms. My work often entails helping clients work out the misalignment between their will and their actions. They can use that gained clarity to come to terms with their past and make the changes they want. The fear that comes with addressing fears, loneliness and anxieties is gently peeled off layer by layer.

3. Do not rush to judge. Everyone experiences an event in different ways. 

Was there something Cottard could have done to avoid that? Definitely. Nevertheless, it does not change that in his experience, life was horrible before the plague and became considerably better after the onset of the plague.

Practical application

Some people struggle with the idea that they might be wrong, and others might be right. We all know people who cannot come to terms with others holding a different opinion.  Conversely, for some being right is something they are not comfortable with. And that can be for different reasons, such as a negative image of oneself, where one unconsciously and almost instantly sets others on a pedestal. That impacts the way people relate to others. They can fall into the superiority trap and think that only their experience is valid. Or they can place others at an idealised level and deny themselves. 

How does counselling help?

Practising curiosity should be a major part of the therapeutic alliance, and it certainly is the case for me. In my work, I compassionately enquire about the motivations driving your beliefs. That comes with attentively listening and not jumping to conclusions. The hidden absolutes are at the same time challenged in a way that helps you see things in a different light. 

4. Comparing yourself to others to determine your self-worth.

Cottard is despondent when the world is thriving. He is on cloud nine when others are crestfallen. From his perspective, the plague finally brought everyone else to his level. He is relishing an exceptional situation and a feeling of worthiness, not caring about the community’s misery. Can you see how his focus on achieving vertical superiority leaves him vulnerable to fluctuations outside of his control? 

Practical application

No one lives in a secluded world on their own. We create comparisons so we can shape our understanding of the world. This helps us to assess the environment around us. When making comparisons becomes an overused strategy, and it becomes all we have in our toolkit, we are basing our worth on something that is not dependent on us. Insecurity quickly ensues, and so does anxiety. It all becomes a competition and conflict, so loneliness follows. Who wants to connect with someone who is always in competition mode? 

How does counselling help?

It might sound a bit cliché, but in my work, I aim at facilitating a comparison between you and you only. I believe this will give you control over your trajectory. You will be encouraged to notice that you get out what you put in. Sudden changes will be less disconcerting to you, which will help you handle challenges more vigorously. Anxiety will also be reduced, allowing you to focus on what moves you closer, not farther, to others. 

Be it anxiety, numbing, or loneliness, Cottard is but a vignette of human reality. As you connect the dots and reflect on what stuck with you from this article, don’t hesitate to reach out if you would be interested in understanding how counselling could help you with the struggles you are currently experiencing!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Central London EC4Y & Surbiton KT6
Written by Robert Preda, BSc. Psychology, MNCPS Accred, ACC, BPS | Counsellor
Central London EC4Y & Surbiton KT6

Robert Preda is a Transactional Analysis Counsellor, based in London.
The series entitled "Literature, Life and Therapy" aims to draw parallels between the inner world of fictional characters and our everyday experiences.
Learn about them and you'll learn about yourself!
Find out more about counselling:

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals