What does the tolling of the church bells signify?

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Whenever anyone mentions the tolling of church bells, I always think of John Donne's famous Meditation 17, which contains the line "ask not for whom the bell tolls." This gives some indication of what tolling church bells would have signified before, and during, the time period in which Fever 1793 is set. While church bells would toll frequently—to indicate that it was time to come to church for mass; to celebrate a wedding; to celebrate a royal occasion, such as the birth of an heir—they would be heard particularly during times of mass death, because the church bells would toll during a funeral. During the plague of 1666 in England, it is said that the bells never ceased tolling, because they would ring every time somebody died. In this story, accordingly, the tolling of the bells represents the number of people who have succumbed to illness—quite literally, the death toll. Every time another person dies, the bells are rung to mark their death and the years of their life, making it increasingly obvious when the deaths become closer together, more frequent, and more multitudinous.

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The tolling of church bells often heralds the advent of a new year, the end of a war, the birth of a royal child, or some other such happy event. However, in Fever 1793, that's sadly not the case. Here, the ominous sound of the church bell is heard each time someone dies from the yellow fever. As the town's in the grip of a terrifying epidemic, the church bells toll quite a lot. As well as tolling each time someone dies, the church bells ring once for each year the deceased person lived. So the tolling bells signify not just the tragic loss of life, but the equally tragic short period of time that many of the fever's victims have spent upon this earth.

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