Although A Journal of the Plague Year is not Daniel Defoe’s first work of fiction, it offers an interesting perspective from which to examine all of the author’s novels. Purporting to be a journal, one man’s view of a period in a city’s history, this work shows especially well the nexus between realistic reporting and imaginative invention that is the hallmark of Defoe’s novels.
A Journal of the Plague Year
Defoe himself lived through one siege of the plague, and although he was only five years old when the disease swept through London, he presumably would have retained some recollections of this catastrophic event, even if only through conversations he would have heard among family members. In A Journal of the Plague Year, he also refers frequently to the mortality list, drawing on actual documents of the time to give his narrative a sense of reality. In spite of the realistic foundations of the work, however, its imaginative—not to say fantastic—elements outweigh its realism. Defoe, in fact, often shows a surprising interest in the occult or grotesque for one who is supposedly forging the realistic novel in English. Dreams and premonitions often assail his characters—Crusoe’s dream of the angel, Moll’s telepathic contact with her Lancashire husband, Roxana’s precognitive vision of the dead jeweler—and the utter incomprehensibility of the plague takes this work far beyond cause-and-effect realism.
Perhaps the main thing to consider in A Journal of the Plague Year is the narrator, H. L., who, like many of Defoe’s characters, is divided spiritually: He must decide whether to flee London or stay and trust God’s divine Providence. Like Crusoe, H. L. in times of stress opens the Bible randomly and applies its words to his immediate situation. A problem with theme—often Defoe’s weakness—immediately arises, for while the passage that he finds in the Bible convinces him to stay, by the end of the novel he has decided that flight is the only sensible option. His stay in the city is not developed as a moral flaw, however, although, given the religious concerns of the novel, it seems as though it should be: Some critics even see him as guilty of overstraining God’s Providence. This view seems inconsistent with the overall sympathetic character of H. L., and one feels that Defoe is not, perhaps, completely in control of his theme.
Even more significant for theme is the origin of the plague. H. L., a sensible, levelheaded man, insists that the plague’s cause is natural; he is just as insistent, however, that God has used natural means to bring about the plague. In fact, he makes frequent biblical references that, if not providing specific emblematic types for the plague, do give it a resonance beyond that of a mere disease. Thus, the narrator’s insistence on seeing all the horrors of the plague for himself—even though he admits he would be safer at home—has led some critics to see his curiosity as a desire to understand God’s workings directly. Again, one encounters an awkward thematic problem. Is H. L. really curious about God’s wisdom, or is his seeming inability to stay home simply a narrative necessity? There would, after all, be no journal without an eyewitness. Like many thematic problems in Defoe’s works, this becomes one only in retrospect; H. L.’s emphasis on the particulars he describes can be so interesting—even if gruesome—that it is not until the reader has finished the book that these problems surface.
Two episodes from this work show how effective Defoe can be with detail. The first involves H. L.’s journey to the post office. Walking through silent and deserted streets, he arrives at his destination, where he sees “in the middle of the yarda small leather purse with two keys hanging at it, with money in it, but nobody would meddle with it.” There are three men around the courtyard who tell H. L. that they are leaving it there in case the owner returns. As H. L. is about to leave, one of the men finally offers to take it “so that if the right owner came for it he should be sure to have it,” and he proceeds to carry out an elaborate process of disinfection. This episode, on the surface merely straightforward description, is fraught with drama and ambiguity.
While it is realistic for the streets to be deserted as people take to the safety of their houses, the silence lends an eerie backdrop to this scene. Furthermore, the men’s motivations are hardly straightforward. Are they leaving the purse there out of honesty or are they fearful of contamination? Are they simply playing a waiting game with one another to see who leaves first? Does one man finally take the purse to keep it for the owner or for himself? Finally, why does he have all the disinfecting materials—including red-hot tongs—immediately available? Was he about to take the purse before H. L. arrived? H. L.’s remarks about the money found in the purse—“as I rememberabout thirteen shillings and some smooth groats and brass farthings”—complete this episode: The particularity of the amount is typical of Defoe’s realism, and H. L.’s hesitant “as I remember” also persuades the reader that he or she is witnessing the mental processes of a scrupulously honest narrator. In fact, this whole passage is so effective that one tends to overlook an internal inconsistency: Early in the paragraph H. L. says that the sum of money was not so large “that I had any inclination to meddle with it,” yet he only discovers the sum at the end of this episode. Defoe is prone to narrative slips of this kind, but, like this one, they are usually unimportant and inconspicuous.
Another vivid episode concerns H. L. going to check on his brother’s house while he is away. Next to the house is a warehouse, and as H. L. approaches it, he finds that it has been broken into and is full of women trying on hats. Thievery is by no means uncommon during the plague, although the women’s interest in fashion does seem bizarre. What is remarkable about this description, however, is its ambience: Instead of grabbing the hats and fleeing, the women are behaving as if they are at a milliner’s, trying on hats until they find those that are most becoming. This scene shows Defoe ostensibly writing realistically when, in fact, he is creating a picture that borders on the surreal.
A Journal of the Plague Year does not always achieve the degree of success that these two episodes display; much of the book is filled with descriptions of the cries and lamentations the narrator hears as he walks the streets. Even horror, if undifferentiated, can become monotonous, and Defoe does not always know how to be selective about details. One device that he employs to better effect here than in his other works is the keeping of lists. Defoe’s characters often keep balance sheets of their profits and expenditures, and while this may indicate, as Ian Watt contends, Defoe’s essentially materialistic bias, these lists often seem examples of the crudest form of realism. In A Journal of the Plague Year, however, the mortality lists scattered throughout are rather more successful and provide almost a thudding rhythm to what is being described: God’s terrible visitation.
Robinson Crusoe, like A Journal of the Plague Year and much of Defoe’s fiction, is based on a factual event: Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor, lived for four years on the island of Juan Fernandez until he was rescued in 1709. Defoe supplemented accounts of Selkirk’s adventures with information from travel books: Richard Hakluyt’s The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589, 1598-1600), William Dampier’s New Voyage Round the World (1697), and Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681). Nevertheless, it is as fiction—not a pastiche of other people’s books—that Robinson Crusoe engrosses the reader.
Because the story centers on one character, it depends on that character for much of its success, and critics have tended to divide into two groups: those who see Crusoe as the new middle-class economic man with only perfunctory religious feelings and those who see him as a deeply spiritual person whose narrative is essentially that of a conversion experience. The answer, perhaps, is that both views of Crusoe coexist in this novel, that Defoe was not sure in this early work exactly where his story was taking him. This ambiguity is not surprising given that the same problem surfaces in Moll Flanders; it was not until Roxana that Defoe seems to have worked out his themes fully.
The opening frame to Crusoe’s island adventure provides a logical starting point for examining his character. Writing in retrospect, Crusoe blames his shipwreck and subsequent sufferings on his “propension of nature,” which made him reject his father’s counsel of moderation and prompted him to go to sea. His father’s speech seems to echo the idea of a great chain of being: Crusoe’s life belongs to the “middle state,” and he should not endanger himself by reckless acts. If Crusoe’s filial disobedience seems trivial to modern readers, it was not to Defoe: His The Family Instructor, in Three Parts (1715) and A New Family Instructor (1727) make clear how important the mutual obligations of parents and children are. Crusoe himself, recounting his exile from the perspective of old age, talks about his father in biblical terms: After Crusoe’s first shipwreck, his father is “an emblem of our blessed Saviour’s parable, [and] had even killed the fatted calf for me.” When Crusoe reflects, then, on his sinful and vicious life, the reader has to accept Defoe’s given: that Crusoe’s early giddy nature is a serious moral flaw.
Even with this assumption, however, the reader may have problems understanding Crusoe’s character. Throughout the novel, for example, images of prison and capture recur. This makes sense, for the island is both a prison and, if the reader believes in Crusoe’s conversion, a means of attaining spiritual freedom. Crusoe himself is imprisoned early in the novel by some Moors and escapes only after two years (the events of which, like the events that take place over many long stretches of time in Defoe’s novels, are only briefly summarized) with a boy named Xury, a captive who soon becomes Crusoe’s helpmate and friend. Once Crusoe is free, however, he sells Xury willingly and misses him only when his plantation grows so large that he needs extra labor. Indeed, it is indicative of his relations with other people that when Crusoe meets Friday, Friday abases himself to Crusoe, and Crusoe gives his own name as “Master.” Perhaps one should not expect enlightened social attitudes about slavery or race in an eighteenth century author. Even so, there seems pointed irony—presumably unintended by Defoe—in Crusoe gaining his freedom only to imprison others; Crusoe’s attitude does not seem sufficient for the themes and imagery that Defoe himself has woven into this work.
Crusoe does not behave appreciably better with Europeans. When he rescues Friday and his father, he also rescues a Spaniard who, with a group of Spaniards and Portuguese, has been living peaceably with Friday’s tribe. Crusoe begins to think about trying to return to civilization with the Europeans and sends the Spaniard back to Friday’s tribe to consult with the others. Before he returns, however, a ship with a mutinous crew arrives on the island. Crusoe rescues the captain and regains control of most of the mutineers. They leave the worst mutineers on the island and sail off for civilization; Crusoe apparently gives no thought to the Spaniard, who will return to the island only to find a motley collection of renegades. Defoe may, of course, simply have forgotten momentarily about the Spaniard as his narrative progressed to new adventures, but if so, this is an unfortunate lapse because it confuses the reader about character and, therefore, about Crusoe’s humanity.
Another problem—this time...
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