Unlike Daniel Defoe’s other books and novels, A Journal of the Plague Year is rarely read as a whole, although a number of writers, such as Virginia Woolf, testify to its impact. It is more likely than Defoe’s novels, however, to be included in college anthologies of English literature, where its presence is justified as appropriate for reprinting in extracts by its episodic construction and by its historical significance. Both grounds indicate the nature and worth of the whole work. On every page, the book shows more clearly than Moll Flanders (1722), or any of the other episodic novels posing as true accounts, the intricate and slow development of the English novel. As the English novel developed, writers moved away from sermons, romances, and polemics and established a formal tradition that continued for some two centuries. Defoe’s reputation as the founder of the English novel rests as much on A Journal of the Plague Year as it does on Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Roxana (1724).
The first problem in the development of the novel was to establish a working relationship between fact and fiction. The traditional novel still uses realistic narration to assist readers in the willing suspension of disbelief. Defoe’s invention was to use statistics. Tabulated on the pages of A Journal of the Plague Year are the weekly death bills or returns from the ninety-seven parishes in the city of London and the sixteen or so in Southwark and outside the city limits. The tables are disposed artfully throughout the work, instead of appearing as appendices, and they are surrounded by further realistic particulars. In a very short time, the reader is in a region of rumor that Defoe first solemnly reports, then rationally dismisses or qualifies. Rumor is the middle ground between statistics and the imagination, and Defoe is careful to allow readers to believe it or not, as they wish. Readers accept such folklore at face value, perhaps, because gossip is more entertaining than truth. The first sentence of A Journal of the Plague Year, for example, specifies September, 1664, as the date the narrator first heard the rumor that the plague had come to Holland for the second year running. The first paragraph then expands with rumors about its place of origin: “they say . . . some said . . . others . . . all agreed.”
The full title of A Journal of the Plague Year contains a bland lie that indicates the second way Defoe encouraged the reader’s imagination to work. “Observations or Memorials” sufficiently confuses the distinction between what was recorded at the time and what was remembered later. Defoe’s sources, beyond the death bills, were not extensive, and his memories were secondhand. His imagination, however, was fertile. He carefully controlled and encouraged the imagination by the threefold organization of his work. Contrary to the word “journal” in the title, the book is not a daily record. Time references shift from September to August and over the whole summer of the plague. Instead of daily entries, Defoe uses time references, from September, 1664, to December, 1665, as ways of beginning and concluding his narrative, ending with the doggerel quatrain that celebrates the narrator’s deliverance. Within the work, he...
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