Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462
English writer Daniel Defoe gained great popularity with his well-known novels Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). A Journal of the Plague Year, which is a fictional first-hand account of the bubonic plague, was written and published just before Moll Flanders (also in 1722). Defoe was five years old when the plague hit England; however, he relied on research as well as familial anecdotes to compose the Journal.
The narrator, known by the signature "H. F.," is a saddler who remains otherwise nameless. He remarks that, in the time before printed papers, news arrived via word of mouth. In September of 1664, such news reported that the plague had reached Holland, but the first victims in England were not confirmed until November. The narrator notes the increase in weekly burial counts among English cemeteries in the following year.
The narrator's brother arrives and encourages him to go to the country. The narrator is reluctant to go, as he feels called by God to die—and the woman to whom he planned to entrust his estate has herself died.
The narrator tracks the plague's movement among parishes and notes that it afflicts the urban poor disproportionately. The narrator describes how the landscape of the city changes; judges hold court outside of London and lawyers leave their practices. Additionally, merchants, sailors, journeymen, and various tradespeople are prohibited from working in an effort to stifle the plague. The narrator suspects that, by the end of the summer (during which time the plague was more), the city will be left with only civil servants. The narrator chides these ministers for sinking people's spirits rather than lifting them.
Moreover, it is explained that the population grew incrementally more superstitious as the plague progressed. People wore amulets to try to guard against sickness. Legislation was passed that mandated such things as notifying the public when a household was sick by means of a sign outside the door.
Defoe punctuates his narrative with individual vignettes. In one such scene, a man begs for a place to stay at an an inn and orders a glass of ale that the maid forgets to bring. The following morning, he is found dead with his jaw agape.
The narrator confirms that the plague most likely spread from the movement of people and goods. Furthermore, people aiming to escape the plague in the city likely carried the plague with them wherever they went. The narrator resists the temptation to propose a cause for the devastating plague (which abated in the following winter), but is convinced that it came from God.
The following winter, those left alive returned to their lives (many bearing the marks of the wounds they suffered from while afflicted). At first grateful to be alive, people quickly settled back into their normal routines.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1354
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 preserves a gradual movement of the plague from the western to the eastern parts of the city, ending with a central holocaust, and scattered throughout the work readers find his tables of statistics. The geographical, the chronological, and the numerical progress of the plague is not followed consistently. The jumps in geography and time make one want to restore logical order to the work and thereby turn it into a literal “journal,” at the same time risking loss of its imaginative qualities. Much about the plague’s effects and progress is left to the imagination, as the author intends.
Defoe’s imagination proceeds mechanically but energetically by considering a general topic and its related topics one at a time. Therefore, readers get several pages of increasingly horrific detail about the practices of nurses, then a catalog of various kinds of quacks, fortune-tellers, prophets, and necromancers who flourished during that awful summer. The section on women in childbirth, for example, coolly divides their tragedies into those who died in childbirth with and without the plague, and the former are further subdivided into those who died before giving birth, or in the middle of giving birth, or before the cord was cut. Defoe’s narrator could see little of these matters for himself, but “they say” and “I heard” fill up the paragraphs one after another until all possible contingencies have been covered.
Defoe’s imagination works with three classes of corroborative detail: the quick summary, the brief anecdote, and the extended story. The summary paragraph often introduces a series of brief anecdotes but sometimes stands alone, as in his brief recital of the killing of forty thousand dogs and two hundred thousand cats as a precaution against the spread of the plague. There are many brief anecdotes, such as the frequently anthologized account of purifying a purse, that exhibit at once the commonsense caution Defoe admires, the honesty of the Londoner, and the belief that the plague was spread by contaminated air. The longest of the stories, filling about one-tenth of A Journal of the Plague Year, is that of the three men and their company who spent the summer camping in Epping Forest. Defoe tells the story at length to show what happened to Londoners who left the city and retired to places where his narrator could not follow them.
Defoe’s subject was epic in scope: A great metropolis is slowly strangled by a hidden enemy. The size of his subject gives ample scope for the inclusion of all sorts of material, but his handling of it is typically original. Instead of a heroic poem, readers are presented with the sober account of an average Londoner. The Londoners who stayed in London are the heroes of Defoe’s book—those from the Lord Mayor to beggars who did not abandon their city. The narrator is simply identified by the subscription of “H. F.” throughout the novel (possibly an allusion to Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe) and is described as a saddler engaged in the American trade. This, like all trade and manufacturing, ended with the onslaught of the plague in June, 1665, and left his narrator free to observe the reactions of his townsfolk.
Defoe’s choice of narrator serves to control his material. Presenting the terrible soberly, the narrator offers views on the prevention of the plague. For example, the narrator is critical of shutting up the living with the sick when one plague victim is found in the house. The opinions of the narrator, however, seem contradictory in two respects. The first is purely technical; the saddler recommends shutting up one’s house at the beginning of the plague but acknowledges that supplies have to be brought by servants and thus the plague spreads. He shuts up his house and servants but wanders through the streets even to the death pits (he observes that one in his parish of Aldgate holds 1,114 corpses when full); he must wander in order to write his journal. Except for a period of three weeks when he is conscripted as an examiner, he remains an observer and thus uncharacteristic of London’s energetic and resourceful citizens. The populace’s organization is practical, and the narrator lauds the Londoners’ community spirit during the plague and bewails its passage as the plague diminishes.
In a second respect, the ambivalence of the narrator is more striking. He lauds common sense and courage where he finds it but looks for the salvation of the city in divine providence during the despair most felt at the end of September, when deaths numbered more than ten thousand weekly. Then, suddenly, the weekly bills showed a dramatic decrease. To whom should go the praise? Defoe is equivocal, in much the same way that he solemnly introduces the scandalous history of Moll Flanders as a moral tract. This ambivalence may be called the true foundation of the English novel, a recital of fictions that rings true.