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.
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...
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