A Journal Of The Plague Year By Daniel Defoe: A Scholarly Review Of The Book
In A Journal Of The Plague Year, Daniel Defoe examined his contemporary environment of London during the Plague Year of 1665, using a fictional narrator named ‘H.F.’ to describe the onset and progression of the Plague, as well as the various attempts, both physical and supernatural, to contain it. The Plague caused a great haranguing fear to fall upon London and profoundly affected the inhabitants in ways that cannot be described, considering “the Deliriums which the Agony threw people into” (Defoe 142). People, both literally and figuratively, went insane from fear, and in turn, the foundational basis on which society was built was utterly destroyed. This is, from what one can pull from H.F.’s observations, completely understandable. For as H.F. recounts, “Death now began not, as we may say, to hover over every ones Head only, but to look into their Houses, and Chambers, and stare in their Faces” (Defoe 31). The sheer devastation was unparalleled, for “’tis certain they [the people] died by Heaps, and were buried by Heaps” (Defoe 203). As Bonney put it, “the recurrence of Plague was one of the more important brakes on the population” (Bonney 367). The staggering death toll changed the way people viewed their lives and the political, economic, social, and religious situations around them.
At the early onset of the Plague, H.F. recounts that a “great Multitude” had fled the City, and that during this time, “the [Royal] Court removed early, in the month of June, and went to Oxford, where it pleas’d God to preserve them, whereby H.F. humorously, though rather absent mindedly, pointed out that, “there would be really none but Magistrates and Servants left in the City” (Defoe 15). This is confirmed in Bonney’s resourceful book when he says that, “Kings, ministers and even whole institutions such as provincial Parlements in France would leave the infected locality” (Bonney 368). Even in the absence of the Royal Court, the government was still able to make decisions regarding the Plague, such as “[encouraging] their Devotion, and [appointing publick Prayers, and Days of fasting and Humiliation” (Defoe 26). As the development of the Plague spread and the death toll increased, the London government looked for more effective, although inevitably harsher, tactics to enforce against the Plague. In the Journal, H.F. speaks of the “publick Measures [that] were taken by the Magistrates for the general Safety, and to prevent the spreading of the Distemper, when it first broke out” in an attempt to “[preserve] good Order” and “[furnish] provisions” (Defoe 33).
The general bill of death in 1665 (Image Source).
One such attempt to control the spread was the “cruel and Unchristian Method” of the “shutting up of houses” that were “within the Lord Mayor’s Jurisdiction” and that of the “Justices of Peace” (Defoe 42). The death rate in these Plague houses was remarkably high as related by Bonney, when he said that, “the quarantine of areas affected by the Plague, the burning of ‘contaminated’ houses and possessions and clothes of Plague victims, intensified hardship. The mortality rate in evacuation camps and Plague houses was exceptionally high” (Bonney 368). The innocent were in many cases shut up with the ill and thus condemned to die, but such was the terrible course of action to preserve the greater good. As H.F. lamentably relates, “the Misery of those families is not to be express’d, and it was generally in such Houses that we heard the most dismal Shrieks and Out-cries of the poor People terrified, and even frighted to Death, by the Sight of the Condition of their dearest Relations, and by the Terror of being imprisoned as they were” (Defoe 49). H.F. tells of a family who was locked up in their house because of a maidservant who caught the affliction; as a result of their imprisonment, the whole body of people in that house perished. This may of course have seemed a harsh and cruel method, but as H.F. later countered, “A Plague is a formidable Enemy, and is arm’d with Terrors that every Man is not sufficiently fortified to resist, or prepar’d to stand the Shock against” (Defoe 202). After all, the only way to fight terror is with terror.
Of trade, H.F. states that, “at the first breaking out of the Infection, there was ... a very great fright among the People, and consequently a general stop of Trade” (Defoe 190). For fear of spreading the Plague, the ports of foreign countries would not allow English ships to disembark, and likewise no ships were accepted in other countries affected by the Plague, such as in the Netherlands, where it was first noted in Europe. As H.F. notes, “there needs little to be said [as to foreign trade]...no Port of France, or Holland, or Spain, or Italy would admit our Ships or correspond with us” and consequently, “our Merchants accordingly were at full Stop” (Defoe 183). If any vessel from London were to arrive in mainland Europe it would not be allowed to unload its goods, or even land in Port or elsewhere. Such measures were due of course, to “the manner of its coming first to London by Goods brought over from Holland” (Defoe 167).
According to what H.F. recounts in his Journal, horror and despair exaggerated the “Report of [the Plague abroad],” which is understandable seeing how “the Plague was it self very terrible and the Distress of the People very great,” so that those abroad believed, falsely, “that in London there died twenty thousand in a Week” and “that all the Kingdom was infected likewise” (Defoe 184-185). In actuality, under a tenth of population died in this horrid outbreak, according to H.F., and that a great multitude of people were left that lived all that time in London. That is not to say, however, or in anyway undervalue the true disastrous nature of the Plague, “for [in] the Minds of the People,” ... “Death was before their Eyes, and every Body began to think of their Graves, not of Mirth and Diversions” (Defoe 27). No one was safe and no one felt safe, and the worst of it all was that everyone knew this terrible fact, making life meaningless. Such was the nature of the disease, that “Men [who were seen] alive, and well to outward Appearance one Hour, [were] dead the next” (Defoe 168). During the progression of the Plague, it was difficult to discern who exactly was sick and who wasn’t, for as H.F. says, “People sicken’d so fast, and died so soon, that it was impossible and indeed to no purpose to go about to enquire who was sick and who was well” (Defoe 143). The Plague had such a detrimental effect on society as a whole, in that it “took away all Compassion,” so that “there were many Instances of immovable Affection, Pity, and Duty” that were consequently disregarded, so great was the “utmost distress” of the living (Defoe 100). The despair shared by the masses moved many to commit vile and vulgar acts, in the knowledge that they had perhaps mere days or hours to live. As H.F. says, “for tho’ it be something wonderful to tell, that any should have Hearts so hardned, in the midst of such a Calamity, as to rob and steal; yet certain it is, that all Sorts of Villanies, and even Levities and Debaucheries were then practis’d in the Town, as openly as ever” (Defoe 15). Suicidal propensities and violent reprisals against the ill were also undertaken, such as the case H.F. described of “One man in or about Whitecross-street, [who] burnt himself to Death in his Bed,” rather than suffer the agonizing death by Plague (Defoe 142). Another account is given by H.F. of “Nurses who looked after the dying People, using them barbarously, starving them, smothering them, or by wicked Means, hastening their End, that is to say, murthering of them” (Defoe 72). In some cases, Watchmen guarding Plague houses were also targeted by desperate people, such as a case in which “Watchmen [who] were on their Duty, and acting in the Post where they were plac’d by a lawful Authority” were summarily killed for the Execution of [their] office” (Defoe 134).
Despite, or perhaps because of, all the terror and delirium caused by the Plague, H.F. remarks that, “it is said of the People of London, that during the whole time of the Pestilence, the Churches or Meetings were never wholly shut up, nor did the People decline coming out to the public Worship of God” (Defoe 179). This is further supported when H.F. states that these gatherings “People attended with an uncommon devotion,” in order to show how they “apply’d themselves in a truly Christian Manner, to the proper Work of Repentance and Humiliation, as a Christian People ought to do” (Defoe 26). The desperations, to which people were thrown into, with Death staring at them from all sides, caused many, truly or falsely, to ask for forgiveness from God, believing it the only way to save themselves, in this life or the next. H.F. recounts in a particular passage, which I found very remarkable, that “Many Consciences were awakened; many hard Hearts melted into Tears; many a penitent Confession was made of Crimes long concealed” as “People might be heard even into the Streets as we pass’d along, ... and saying, I have been a Thief, I have been an Adulterer, I have been a Murderer, and the like” (Defoe 31).
In conclusion, Defoe accomplished his goal of presenting an account of the Plague in the year 1665, backing it up with contemporary evidence in a well-argued and interesting book. Though the text, like practically all works, has a few minor problems, it still remains clear, albeit sometimes a bit dense, in its explanations. One thing that is detrimental to the reading of the book is its lack of structure; the entire book is one undivided whole. What makes Defoe’s book a masterpiece is the thoroughness with which he analyzes and interprets various aspects and characteristics of the problems of the nightmarish period. After reading this book, one can certainly say that it was written for an audience with a high level of reading and writing. Some basic background information of the period is strongly recommended to know before attempting to read this book, and it would certainly facilitate the understanding of it. Overall, the work was thought-provoking and interesting, and it should be read by anyone interested in European history.
© 2011 Gregory Markov
Defoe, Daniel. A Journal Of The Plague Year. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Bonney, Richard. The Short Oxford, History of the Modern World: The European Dynastic States 1494-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.