Daniel Defoe Long Fiction Analysis
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...
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