Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360
English novelist Daniel Defoe's The Journal of the Plague Year (1722) purports to be the private journal of an unnamed narrator (a saddler by trade) during the Great (bubonic) Plague of 1664–5. Historically, it was the third and last major epidemic of the bubonic plague (whose cause, only recently confirmed, is the bacterium yersinia pestis). The author was four years old at its outbreak, and so the narrator is a fictional persona.
There has been a fair amount of debate over whether Defoe's Journal is a novel. Upon its publication, it was received as work of fiction and only decades later was classified as novel. The classification of a novel does not, however, detract from the Journal's ability to illuminate this uniquely devastating period of English history.
There are several characters featured; however, they are only dimly outlined and scantly developed (in the very way that an individual's memory might feature them), rather than the characters of the type featured in conventional novels. The narrator's anecdotes involving other individuals are interludes among his own thoughts.
One such character is the narrator's elder brother (also a resident of London) who encourages the narrator to return to the country (which the latter refused, preferring to entrust his fate to God).
Another figure is the Lord Mayor of London, who appoints physicians to look after the sick. According to the narrator, his house was overrun by those seeking treatment. The Lord Mayor also made inquests concerning the number of deceased within given parishes.
Another figure is a gentleman whose family has died and who has bid farewell to their bodies, which are taken away on a cart, piled among others. He arrives at a tavern and is mocked by a group of drunken men who resent the master of the tavern for letting him in (as they assume that he, like is family, is infected). They mock and ridicule the man, and so the narrator is pleased to see these men themselves take ill within several weeks.
Overall, the characters are seldom named and not very developed. This contributes to the journalistic quality of the novel, as well as to the confused atmosphere it represents.