Plagues and Problems: Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Years
by Stu O’Connor
Memento Mori (“Remember, you must die”). The awareness of inevitable death has been a concern of philosophers since at least Socrates. And not just death’s inevitability but its potential suddenness. As Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations: “You could leave life right now.”
The current coronavirus pandemic has brought this awareness to the fore across the world. The reaction, both in societies and individuals, has been profound. The first sensation is shock. Then, comes loss of certainty. After that, loss of discipline. Finally, we succumb to our baser natures, wrapped in a cloak of unmitigated fear.
The current pandemic isn’t the first mankind has experienced, although this is only the second time a single virus has infected the entire world (the first, of course, being the Spanish flu of 1918–19). As with other cataclysmic events—whether natural, manmade, or a random Act of God—there is no real way of comprehending this pandemic as it occurs, no way of getting our minds around the magnitude of what we are experiencing now that daily life has come to a virtual standstill. The changes to our lives roll through so quickly that we can barely understand their significance. Only, perhaps, in hindsight will we be able to comprehend what has happened.
This is the first in a five-part series on works that describe people watching helplessly as the world they knew dies while a new, unsure world is born. Some of the most famous and deadly of these occurrences fell in Europe, during the many waves of the bubonic plague that continent experienced. We begin with a novel of one man’s description of what it was like to live through such an event.
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There is no more harrowing account of the bubonic plague than Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year (read for free via Project Gutenberg at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/376/376-h/376-h.htm). Most famously known as the author of Robinson Crusoe (considered by some to be the first English novel), Defoe published, in 1722, an account of a solitary man’s experience with the 1665 Great Plague of London. The bubonic plague first rolled through Europe in the 1350s, a result of infected rats disembarking from trade ships. That pandemic, the Black Death, killed between 50 and 200 million people in Europe and Asia. Many successive waves of the infection passed through Europe afterward. Indeed, we may have the disease to thank for William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, much of the contents of which he wrote while London’s theater district was closed down during a 1606 plague outbreak.
Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year has raised issues among critics—some regard the work as fiction, since Defoe was but a child during the Great Plague—but it shimmers with the aura of eyewitness truth. Initially published under the initials H. F. (Defoe probably based the account on the journals of his uncle, Henry Foe), the book elaborates in painstaking detail (which has been verified) the ravages of the plague on London.
Among the places Defoe describes were the “plague pits” outside London, where the dead bodies were tossed into large open graves, then given a generous coating of lye before being covered over with earth. Relatives of those thus interred, usually sickened with the infection themselves, often hung around the pits, ready to hurl themselves in when the tenders of the pits weren’t looking, in order to die with loved ones. Defoe’s description evokes an eerie, Twilight Zone feel and leaves the reader with the surreal impression, “My God, that can’t happen here,” or more realistically these days, “My God, I hope that doesn’t happen here.”
At one point H. F. witnesses a cart arriving at a church graveyard. He thinks he sees an infected man ready to throw himself into the pit and asks the minister of the church for permission to enter. The minister warns H. F. most strongly against it but allows him to go in at his own risk, with appropriate safety measures (keeping his distance and covering his face with a mask). As H. F. enters the graveyard and watches the bodies on the cart being tossed into the pit, he finds that the man he thought was sick turns out to be the husband and father of the family on the cart, so bent with grief that he was easily mistaken for being ill. The scene ends with the father wandering away, directionless, unable to find solace. Dark times, indeed.
Elsewher Defoe tells of a man suffering from fever and delirium (both on the list of plague symptoms) who defies the guards in the London streets, runs to the River Thames and jumps in, then swims to the other side. Coming to his senses and not aware of the delirium that has sent him on this late-night journey, he swims back. The next morning, he finds himself cured, as his adventure had opened the buboes afflicting his lymph nodes (another symptom), and the cold water of the Thames has washed out the infection. This scene is certainly one of the more ironic cures from a deadly disease in all of literature, and no doubt, in the history of pandemics.
All pandemics eventually subside, and afterwards there is palpable relief, as Defoe’s final pages make clear. While the disease rages, however, there is little one can do except take precautions and hope, or pray, depending on one’s religious persuasion.
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In our present COVID-19 pandemic, we live with hope, fear, and impatience (speaking for myself here), and can only wait and count the hours until our release. What to do with those many hours? Reading is always a productive way to pass the time and to gain insight into our situation, based on the experiences of others, so if you wish to read other accounts of human fear, faith, and fortitude during pandemics, here are a few suggestions:
- The Plague (1947), by Albert Camus. While a work of fiction, Camus’ brilliant sparse style and unflinching look at human truths delivers insights into human reactions to terrible times, including an assessment of our moral approach to such times.
- The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1825), by Samuel Pepys. Pepys lived during the London plague of 1665. We will look at Pepys’ reaction to other historic times, next time. In addition to his writing about the plague in London (“God preserve us all!”), Pepys witnessed a number of historic events, and often tells them with a humor and economy that reminds one of Andy Warhol’s irreverent diaries.
- The Black Death (1969), by Philip Ziegler. As precise and devastating a look at the first wave of the bubonic plague, in 1352, as you’re likely to find. Ziegler distances himself from emotional involvement and gets down to brass tacks – a mathematical description of the relentless, exponential growth of the event that undermined the slavish medieval feudal system and opened the doors to the eventual Renaissance.
- Year of Wonders (2001), by Geraldine Brooks. A beautifully written modern novel of the plague in England in 1665–66. The story is told on a microcosmic level through the eyes of a serving girl in a village in the English countryside. Brooks puts an all-too-human face on the effects of the plague on the village in which she lives and the people she knows.
- Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), by Katherine Ann Porter. This short novel by the author of Ship of Fools takes place during the Spanish flu of 1918, and is the story, set in Denver, of the relationship between a newspaperwoman and a soldier. The woman falls ill and is tended to by the soldier, with dire consequences. Porter herself worked at a newspaper in Denver and contracted the flu there. Her description of the suffering caused by the epidemic so impressed the historian Alfred W. Crosby that he dedicated his book on the Spanish flu, America’s Forgotten Epidemic, to her.
In order to understand our future, we must respect the past.
Photo by Seven Shooter @sevenshooterimage (CA).
Stu O’Connor is an educator, musician, and poet who has spent his life dedicated to the power of the word, the necessity of precision in language, and the human need for story as a method of transmitting culture, ideas, and understanding. He has been published in The Mad Poets Review, New Voices in American Poetry, and the Poetry Ink 20 th Anniversary Anthology. He has an undergraduate degree from West Chester University, a Master’s degree from Gratz College, and teaches English in the West Chester Area School District. He has held an Advisory Board seat for West Chester University’s Writing Zones program and currently is an Advisory Board member for The Mad Poets Society, one of the Philadelphia Region’s largest poetry groups. He performs music on a regular basis with two bands and hosts a poetry series in West Chester called ”Living on Luck” for The Mad Poets Society.