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Tick Tock Tick Tock...Freeze: Time Orientation and The Plague

ems8140's picture

        Temporal perspective, the unconscious way in which people incorporate time into their lives through the past, present and future (Boyd & Zimbardo, 2005), plays an active role in Camus’ The Plague. To expand on one of my previous postings for my Story of Evolution & the Evolution of Stories class, the impact of subjective time on the town of Oran and its inhabitants in this novel will be explored. The plague that devastates the town plays an active role in shifting the citizens’ temporal perspective from a balanced orientation between past, present, and future to a present direction, which has many negative repercussions.

          The opening description of the town indicates that the people have a strong future orientation because they “work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich…and their chief aim in life is ‘doing business’” (Camus, 4). They are aware that if they have their present behavior focused on striving for their goals, then rewards will follow, which is one of the main aspects of a future orientation (Boyd & Zimbardo, 2005). The balance between temporal orientations is apparent because, even though they have high motivation and engage in less risk taking during the week, they “don’t eschew such simpler pleasures” (Camus, 4), indicating a present direction as well. Beneficial to the citizens’ mental health, this balance allows for personal growth and development. Evolution is important both in the long term and in the short term. By focusing on their goals for the future, they know there is the chance for improvement in their lives later on. Yet, by enjoying their present as well, they may grow based on personal interactions and learning from each other. This follows psychologist Dapkus’ category of change and continuity for temporal experience, which is the idea that “things are constantly changing and yet have continuity in time” (Dapkus, 1985, 411). Change is important for people to evolve, yet it is still important to retain or continue those aspects of life that have been proven beneficial, such as a balanced temporal orientation. Problems may arise if a future oriented person were to face obstacles that would challenge his temporal direction, possibly preventing him from experiencing his potential future (Drake, Duncan, Sutherland, Abernethy & Henry, 2008).

          Balanced temporal perspective was threatened when the plague came to the city of Oran. “Once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that…each would have to adapt himself to the new condition” (Camus, 67), which included a lifestyle involving only a present time orientation. Just as in evolution, when a change occurs, individuals or organisms have to adapt to their new surroundings. However, adaptation among the citizens in this novel was not beneficial to their wellbeing because they “had nothing left…but the past, and even if some were tempted to live in the future, they had to speedily abandon that idea” (Camus, 72). Because of this past-negative orientation, they were pessimistic about their lives, which is correlated with an external locus of control (Boyd & Zimbardo, 2005). Their inability to control what was happening may have led to depression and a resultant present fatalistic orientation of life because they had a blocked concept of personal future (Boltz, 3/29/11).

          Consisting of a helpless and hopeless attitude toward life, avoidant coping style, and a likelihood for depression and anxiety (Zimbardo & Boyd, 2005), the present-fatalistic time orientation leads to maladaptive qualities and prevents any possible personal progression. As previously mentioned, Dapkus produced the concept of continuity and change for temporal experiences. Because the people affected by the plague were no longer able to conceptualize the past or future, they had a disturbed sense of change and continuity. The citizens were “immobilized in the moment, unable to project a meaningful future or integrate past experiences in to the present” (Dapkus, 1985, 417) because they could only focus on the present.  

          The coping style of this orientation provides insight into the actions of the citizens of Oran. So many of them attempted to live their lives normally by dressing up for meals, attending the opera and participating in daily activities, yet “they drifted through life rather than lived” (Camus, 73). Instead of discussing the worry in their lives, they avoided coping altogether “as if they put such aversive events out of mind because they are believed to be unmodifiable” (Zimbardo & Boyd, 2005, 96). They only went through the motions of life without truly living because there was no motivation of a future. Avoiding the problem completely was problematic because of the resultant lack of personal and societal development.

          While stuck in this present temporal direction, many of the people were fatalistic about the fact that they may never experience the future. However, some of the citizens shifted into a present-hedonistic time orientation, which involves living in the here and now, having high sensation seeking, and having few thoughts about the future (Boltz, 3/22/11). People with this time orientation also engage in avoidant coping style because they refuse to face the reality of the situation. The behavior of this temporal perspective is illustrated by the heavy drinking, people spending their money more freely due to “a mood of reckless extravagance…setting in” (Camus, 120), and “all the recreations of leisure…multiplied a hundredfold” (Camus, 198). This risky behavior inhibits their ability to grow from the experience.

          Not only was a present orientation prevalent among the townspeople, but also the extension, boundary between the present and future (Hoornaert, 1973), seemed infinite. As described by the fact that the “townspeople very quickly desisted…[from] trying to figure out the probable duration of their exile” (Camus, 72). The vast extension between present and future further supports the idea that time seemed to stand still once the plague infested the town. The people had to “cease looking to the future” (Camus, 72) and could only focus on the present.

            The people of Oran had an extremely altered sense of temporal perspective because they were “hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future” (Camus, 73). This inability to find a balance between time perspectives and being trapped in the present prevented any change or personal growth, as illustrated by the fact that “these people were ‘just the same as ever’” (Camus, 308) once the quarantine was lifted. Based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, organisms (and people) will never develop or evolve if life is static and unchanging. For humans, a significant event can trigger a chance for change and advancement, as discussed in another of my previous postings. The plague acted as a “disequilibrating event” (Lilgendahl, 11/11/10) to their normal lives in which the people could have risen to the challenge of accepting their adverse circumstances and grown by working together to figure out the best way to deal with the situation. However, because they were so fixated on the present, the plague was a lost opportunity for personal growth and individual evolution. Had they accepted their situation and gained a sense of control over their present, a future orientation could have developed and they could have grown from the experience.


Works cited

Boyd, J. N. & Zimbardo, P. G. (2005) Time Perspective, Health, and Risk Taking. In Stratham A. & Joireman, J., Understanding Behavior in the Context of Time (85-107). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Camus, A. (1948). The Plague. United States: First Vintage International Edition.

Dapkus, M. A. (1985). A thematic analysis of the experience of time, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 49, 408-419.

Darwin, Charles (2003). On the Origin of Species Ed. Joseph Carroll. Canada: Broadview Texts.

Drake, L., Duncan, E., Sutherland, F., Abernethy, C. & Henry, C. (2008). Time perspective and correlates of wellbeing, Time & Society, 17, 47-61.

Hoornaert, J. (1973). Time perspective theoretical and methodological considerations, Psychologica Belgica, 13, 265-294.

Jennifer Lilgendahl. Personality Psychology. Haverford College. Fall 2010.

Marilyn Boltz. Psychology of Time. Haverford College. Spring 2011.

RSA Animate: The Secret Powers of Time. (2010). Retrieved from

"What's your Time Perspective?" Retrieved from

Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory. (2010). Retrieved from




Anne Dalke's picture

The Mysterious Flow

What tickles me here first and foremost, ems8140, is the way in which you are putting two of your courses into conversation with one another. What you are learning in your psychology of time class really gives you a useful frame for analyzing Camus' novel, as well as for placing it intriguingly in the larger context of our course, where we have been thinking about the difference that time makes in the evolution of the world, the opportunity it offers for, and the way it operates as a marker for, change.

To keep that conversation going--really make it dynamic--I might ask what would happen if you reversed direction, and used Camus' novel merely as a showcase for-- that is, to illustrate-- the concepts you've already learned from the literature on the psychology of time (you have a great bibliography, btw!), but rather to challenge them, to put them under interrogation. Are there presumptions about the validity of not living in the present-- of always looking forward, of progressing-- built into the field of temporal psychology? And built into our ideas about "thinking evolutionarily"? Might part of the effect of the “disequilibrating event” that was the plague have been to bring the people of Oran into a fuller awareness of the present, precisely because they were restricted from imagining a future?  What role might the physicists' sense of a "block universe" (in which time is "laid out in its entirety - a timescape, analogous to a landscape - with all past and future events located there together ... Completely absent from this description of nature is anything that singles out a privileged special moment as the present or any process that would systematically turn future events into the present, then past, events. In short, the time of the physicist does not pass or flow") play in such a bi- or multi-directional narrative?

I guess what I'm really doing here is nudging you toward a conclusion that is, well, less conclusive, more open-ended and questioning. Yours is so tidy!