When thinking about the relationship between Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague and Wilson’s The City of the Plague, from which it was adapted, we are on the wrong track if we are preoccupied with labeling it as a “translation” or an “adaptation” or something else entirely. The set of questions we should be asking is related to the effects it has as a work of world literature and the language used to transport it across time and cultures.
David Damrosch, a scholar of Comparative Literature and a researcher in the field of world literature, writes in his book What is World Literature? (2003) that it is “not an infinite, ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading” (5) “encompass[ing] all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language” (4). The key means of enabling a text’s circulation is translation, which Damrosch does not renounce as a destroyer of meaning but sees as a tool to help a work of world literature gain additional meanings. In another book, How to Read World Literature (2008), Damrosch describes translation as “an expansive transformation of the original, a concrete manifestation of cultural exchange and a new stage in a work’s life as it moves from its first home out into the world” (66), focusing less on specific cultures in which the texts of world literature originate and more on the ideas they communicate. It is therefore important to read in translation and be critically aware of the translators’ choices, both linguistic and social.
The subtitle in English (“From Wilson’s Tragedy The City of the Plague“) is a word-for-word translation of the original (“Из Вильсоновой трагедии: The City of the Plague”), where the word “from” or “из” does not shed any light on how Pushkin saw his play against Wilson’s. When thinking about translation and the use of language, it is noteworthy that we are reading a Russian adaptation of an English play – in English. What is even more interesting is how Pushkin’s translation choices (intended or not) used language as well as the element of language to alter the meanings constructed in his play. Nancy K. Anderson points out in her critical essay Survival and Memory that in Wilson’s play the driver is the one who mutters in an unknown language while in Pushkin’s it is the dead; according to Anderson, this “inspired misunderstanding,” as she sees it, helps reaffirm the disconnect between two separate communities, the living and the dead. Perhaps this was a conscious decision on Pushkin’s part to convey a specific cultural message through the use of the motif of language, a metafictional device referring to the reality where translation loses some of the original meanings, but at the same time gains new ones.
Damrosch also discusses the idea that literature has expanded beyond its fundamental meaning of “written with letters” to include a wide range of cultural productions, from oral texts to movies as works of cinematic narrative. There is no doubt Wilson’s The City of the Plague entered into world literature. One of its occurrences is Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, but plenty more iterations of Pushkin’s play have appeared since its publishing: including but not limited to several translations into other languages, Russian stagings of the play (Пир во время чумы, see parts 1 and 2), numerous English renditions (see here and here), a 1990 Russian opera Feast in Time of Plague by César Cui (Anatoly Moksyakov’s performance of the Chairman’s Hymn to the Plague is available here) etc. A Russian rock band took its name and inspiration from the title of the Pushkin’s play, and a Russian stand-up comedian Mikhail Nikolayevich Zadornov used the title for one of his books as well as played a pun on it in one of his performances.
Without looking further into the constellation of themes and messages revealed to us through a close reading and focusing only on the abovementioned aspects of it, A Feast During the Plague already proves to be a global text, migrating not only through different cultures and languages but across the domains of literature and art as well.
In Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, it is clear that rejoicing during the time of plague is considered rebellious and immoral, to the extent of “lawlessness” (103). But as I was reading the play, I couldn’t help but ask “why is it so wrong?” Loss of beloved ones is surely a mournful thing, but on the societal level, why would it be so grievous when someone dies from plague? Contemplating on the meaning of death presented in this play, I came to the conclusion that the reactions of the readers might differ significantly according to their cultural background, especially how each society views death caused by a plague.
Obviously, sudden death from a plague is deemed negative in many countries. Russian audience, for example, might have found it easy to empathize with the overriding theme in this play. I found a research article in which the writer studies traditional beliefs of Russian peasants regarding death:
The Russian peasants have, from ancient times, divided their dead into two major categories. On the one hand are the “natural” dead, who die of old age at the time appointed by God. On the other are the “unnatural” or “unclean” dead, … this category of dead included those who had met a violent death at the hands of an assassin, those who had died accidentally, by drowning or falling into a swamp for example, by getting lost in the forest or being frozen to death. It also included those struck by lightning or those who had fallen victim to some plague or epidemic. The bodies of such unfortunates were often never recovered and were left to rot unburied or were buried on the spot where the victim met his or her end.
This passage suggests that in Russian perspective, the death from a plague falls into the category of “unnatural” or “unclean” death, which is against the will of God. Scapegoats of the plague were deemed to be “unfortunates.”
On the other hand, death from a plague was equated with martyrdom in Islamic culture, as mentioned in our previous reading, “New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death” by Stearns. Unlike the Russians who believed the death to be untimely and against God’s wishes, Muslims regarded it as “[giving oneself] wholly to the God against [one’s] own desires” (“Martyrdom” from Oxford Islamic Studies Online). According to the article cited above, those martyrs would be rewarded after their deaths:
Unlike ordinary Muslims, after they die martyrs do not have to undergo the intimidating review of their deeds by the angels Munkar and Nakir. A martyr proceeds directly to the highest station in paradise, near the throne of God (“Martyrdom”).
I’m not trying to make an argument that the Muslims would have thrown a party when someone died from a plague as a martyr–for most of the time, death is the last thing to be wanted. But it was interesting for me to discover that some societies had different beliefs from others regarding deaths from a plague, and to imagine how readers from various cultural background might have reacted differently after reading this play. I hope those articles have provided you with some food for thought.
When discussing A Feast During the Plague in class, we briefly went over some reasons why the group might be throwing a feast in the middle of the street during a plague. We talked about how it was a way for them to mourn their loved ones that they lost and to forget about their sorrows through hedonistic indulgence. We (sort of) concluded that Walsingham was probably a madman and that the translation didn’t do a great job of showing that.
We did briefly mention how in Walsingham’s hymn, he sings about a war against “queen” pestilence. It seems like he is challenging the plague to battle, with the rest of his group as his fearless soldiers who are ready to die.
In this photo is a young gent who’s ready to party, who seems like he’ll fit right into Walsingham’s feast, standing amidst rubble. In June 2021, a tornado struck the Czech Republic and caused much damage. Despite the carnage, Moravská Nová Ves, the town in the image that was severely affected by the tornado, still held the Feast of St. Jacob, with the family of the boy featured in the image having lost their home to the tornado. Despite the damage, they throw a (Christian) feast to restore people’s spirits, as if challenging nature itself (or maybe God) to battle.
Similarly, Walsingham and the others also seem to be showing off a defiance of sorts — to prove to either society, the dead, or God that nothing can stop them. They seem to want to represent a hope that life can be lived normally and with joy.
It could also be that the Czech feast was a way for people to forget their sorrows brought about by disaster, similar to what Walsingham seems to be doing in the play, or maybe as a plea to God (which is definitely not what happens in the play, as we can see from the priest that gets driven out).
Maybe defiance, hope, raising morale, and forgetting sorrows are just excuses for people to get drunk and party. No matter what, feasting in the face of disaster seems to be a human thing to do. Living life with hedonistic pursuits even when it is dangerous to do so is something that has happened before, and will happen again.
Feasts, songs, staycations at Italian villas, stories, Netflix, and even pornography*. These are all things people have used to escape from the reality of a pandemic – the first two in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, the second two in Boccacio’s Decameron, and the last two in our world during Covid-19. These things divert people’s attention and help them catch a breath amid the overwhelming pandemic that’s in every nook and cranny of their lives.
The theme of escapism is especially prominent in Pushkin’s play A Feast During the Plague. The play begins with the chairman Mr. Walsingham urging everyone to celebrate the living instead of grieving for the dead. Together, they feast, toast to their dead friend, and sing songs describing the plague in action. It’s not that they are unaware of the deadliness of the plague. As we can see (or hear) from Mary’s song, they are aware that “the dead are carried out / To burials that never cease, / The living pray in fear and trembling.” Also, unlike the young men and women in Decameron who are almost unaffected by the plague and go on their trip to the villa as if it’s a spring outing, the people at Pushkin’s feasting table have suffered personal losses to various extents: they lost their friend Jackson; Mr. Walsingham lost his wife and his mother; Mary seems to have lost her parents, …
All these pitiful people gather at the feasting table for an escape from the horrid reality of the plague and the grave consequences that have befallen them, as Mr. Walsingham tells us: “I am bound here / By despair, by terrible remembrance, by the knowledge of my lawlessness, and by horror of that dead emptiness which greets me now in my own house.” Notice the word “bound.” He seems to suggest that he is not feasting by choice but rather compelled to be there because there is nothing else he can do without directly confronting the tragedy in his house.
Reading about their gathering, we wonder if they are afraid of contracting the plague themselves. One answer to this question is that they are afraid of the contagion, but they have moved beyond the state of fear to a state of irrationality. This reminds us of the Covid-19 parties in Alabama when organizers purposefully invited guests that have tested positive. Granted, our feasters in the play may be slightly more rational (and perhaps more intelligent) than these party-goers in Alabama. But a similar form of irrational escapism is found in both: when there’s too much plague-ness in their life, people do irrational things like these under the slogan “youth loves gaiety” to shun the scary or saddening thoughts they are tired of having.
Coupled with irrationality, there’s also a sense of fatalism in their escape from reality. In Mr. Walsingham’s song, he sings “All, all that threatens to destroy / Fills mortal hearts with secret joy / Beyond our power to explain – / Perhaps it bodes eternal life! And blest is he who can attain / That ecstasy in storm and strife!” It almost seems like he desires to contract the plague and die, but at the same time he is calling the plague “a queen of dread” (We will come back to this personification later).
With all of these said about escapism, we would like to invite you to think about the following questions:
Should we attempt to escape from reality when it’s too much for us to handle? If so, for how long? The duration of a feast? Or perhaps a few weeks of staying at Boccacio’s Italian villa?
Aside from the theme of escapism, we would also like to bring your attention to a few other questions that intrigued us:
First, how does each character depict and react to the plague? Does how we think of and react to the plague have any consequences?
The dialogues in this play, especially Mary’s and Mr. Walsingham’s songs, are filled with imagery, analogy, and personification of the plague that reflected people’s reactions to the plague.
One interesting point is how Mr. Walsingham personifies the plague to be “the queen of dread.” This use of female personification to describe something as horrible as the plague is very different from how we tend to use female personification today: we mainly use female personification to describe things that are beautiful or bountiful, such as the earth. Related to this use of personification, is the overall contrast between males and females in this play. Men, such as the chairman, have leadership positions and the song they sing are “bold and lively;” on the other hand, women are quarreling or having fainting fits, and the song they sing is “sad and haunting.”
A variety of responses to the plague are displayed in this play. Mary’s song is a melancholic reminiscence of the past in the face of the vivid cruelty of the present. Louisa’s personification of the plague as the “hideous demon, black all over, with white eyes” shows her fear of death during the feast. In striking contrast, the chairman’s song is a declaration of war against their enemy, the plague, that confronts and celebrates death (A great conveners’ post from last year’s class that also touches upon this analogy to war can be found here.). These descriptions, although different, all evoke powerful emotions that repeatedly shift the mood of the feast. The chairman’s speech at the end even prompted the crowd to drive out the priest because of his attempt to dismiss the feast.
The spread of emotional responses to the plague is also present in A Journal of the Plague Year by Defoe. The city of London was filled with fear, panic, and hysteria. People are in no way capable of controlling their emotions and responses in these situations, but stabilizing public reaction plays a crucial factor in minimizing the damage of a pandemic. What’s worse in today’s society is that the usage of social media in our daily life polarizes the information we receive about the pandemic, even more so during quarantine when the internet is our only source of news, and this adds a further challenge (or opportunity?) to controlling public reaction during pandemics.
So how should we treat and respond to detrimental shocks like the plague? Is there a proper timeline or principle to moderate this shock to prevent mass hysteria and misinformation? A Feast During the Plague, especially through the emotional conflicts of the chairman and the priest, raises questions of much weight do our words, with the use of literary devices, truly hold in affecting the public?
(Interesting side note: today, climate activists treat climate change as “the war of humankind”. The idea of fighting against a phenomenon parallels the chairman’s speech in the reading. Would you say it is an effective way of appealing to emotions and motivating people with a sense of urgency? Or is it creating an opposite effect?)
Second, is it really morally shameful to pursue selfish personal enjoyment during a pandemic, or can it be justified as a redemption of the human spirit in the face of darkness?
Contagious diseases like Covid and the plague create a challenging dilemma for all of us, humans, to reevaluate our relationships with each other. Humans are like hedgehogs, it is inescapable that we stay together for warmth, but if we are too close, too connected, we hurt each other. We are all involved in a community, but we also survive as individuals. Pandemics pose a challenge for us to reconstruct the interdependent relationship between ourselves and our community. Our safety and happiness can no longer be obtained in a group setting, what should we do?
In both A Journal of the Plague Year and A Feast During the Plague, society very quickly created a new moral construct to regulate people’s actions in order to maintain the fulfillment of a common goal – combating the plague. People are then bound – morally and sometimes legally – by this new social construct. Even nowadays on our campus, we shame those who host parties and prioritize their personal enjoyment over our community’s safety. These new moral constructs ask us to downplay our personal interests, quarantine, struggle with mental health, and be responsible for the interest of a larger community. But to what extent can we sacrifice ourselves? Moreover, How do we balance our personal interest with heroism and responsibility to the world? AFeast During the Plague presents us with this challenge through the conflict between Mr. Walsingham and the priest. Is it really shameful, like the priest says, to pursue selfish personal enjoyment during a pandemic, or is it justified during the days of darkness?
With that, we leave you here. Hope you enjoyed Pushkin’s play and our blog post.
– Amna, Chi-Ting, Sophia, Vivi
*See here for an interesting study done on pornography consumption during Covid-19.
Walsingham in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague is first seen as feasting with his friends. Later the Priest comes a criticizes their actions, especially those of Walsingham, who is revealed to have lost both his mother and wife.
Religion has traditionally served as a way of finding comfort and hope for people during hard times. Walsingham in this play however, goes against those ideals and attempts to forget the pain by celebrating in the midst of the plague. We eventually do not know how well this worked as the play ends with him “plunged in deep contemplation.”
I think it is possible to observe a similar trend with COVID and how as of late, religion has been very frequently targeted for having accelerated the spread of the virus, at times perhaps rightfully so as described by events in this article.
However, the article also mentions the role that religious institutions have been taking such as, providing help for marginalized groups, tackling fear through trust and battling discrimination heightened by pandemics. Given this, simply pushing back religion is not going to be a solution. There need to be ways to guarantee that these activities are carried out, though being cautious about the downfalls of blind faith.
“The “little tragedies” contain a number of scenes that are so intensely dramatic that they demand to be seen and heard, rather than merely read” (Anderson, 6).
From our reading aloud of Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague it became clear that the play is chock-full of emotion, ranging from love to guilt to horror. In the introduction to The Little Tragedies, Anderson puts forth the importance of experiencing the play rather than reading it in one’s own head. The words of the characters must be given a voice if we want to even begin to understand them. I did a bit of research and found some dramatic recreations of the play, old and new. I’ll highlight some of the ones that stood out:
All four of The Little Tragedies have been made into one act operas by Russian composers. A Feast During the Plague was set into opera by Cesar Cui and gives the spotlight to three characters, Mary, Walsingham, and the priest, similar to the focus given to them by Pushkin. Walsingham’s song is referred to as “confronting death with a fine bravado” while Mary sings “with gentle resignation”. Finally the priest “gravely intones his admonition” of the revelers feast. The opera is fairly long, and in Russian, but skip through it to get a sense of the different musical representations of the three main characters.
Next, in the late 1980s Yuri Lyubimov, a Russian stage actor and director, put on his own version of A Feast in Time of Plague. Among other significant changes, the play opens with A Feast and uses it as a framing device. The play is more like The Decameron whereas the revelers sit around and “tell” one another the remaining three little tragedies. The main characters from each of the little tragedies become the revelers at the feast, allowing for their own little tragedies to cumulate to the biggest tragedy of all- the plague and imminent death. Kinda cool right? For more on Lyubimov and his play check out this book by Birgit Beumers.
Back to music: Three out of the four plays have songs that are to be performed by at least one character. The two songs in A Feast are as important than the actual dialogue of the play as they serve to develop Mary and Walsingham and provide insight into how they react to death. The “Theatre Collection” acted out their own version of Mary and Walsingham’s songs, both of which prove to be very different. Mary’s is more of a melodramatic a capella lullaby, while Walsingham aggressively strums an acoustic guitar, shouts, and gets the other revelers to cheer with him.
Lastly, a more modern, seemingly hipster, and of course Russian spin on Pushkin’s play.
Check out the trailer and more promo photos of the rendition here.
A Feast During the Plague is one of three of Alexander Pushkin’s plays [published?] during his lifetime. This play is particularly iconic as its origins and inspirations are very different from his other plays. As explained in The Little Tragedies, Pushkin derived some inspiration for this play from his visit to the Caucasus where he witnessed the outbreak of the plague in Erzum, Armenia. Pushkin’s tragedy, which takes place in the 19th century, is about a man who is having a feast when the entire city is dying of Cholera. Pushkin, however, writes this about the plague not merely as a means of reflecting on his personal experiences, but the idea of “plague” in this play offers a deeper metaphorical symbolism. Throughout the play, Pushkin forces his audience to grapple with the questions:
“What is the response of an individual to a catastrophe that has enveloped the community as a whole but he or she has so far escaped? Is it possible to save oneself by turning one’s back on the doomed community, or does one’s own humanity demand solidarity with other human beings even in their agony? And what bond — if any — remains between the saved and the lost? The living and the dead?
The feast and the members in attendance, according to Pushkin, represent a microcosm of the larger society. Pushkin, therefore uses this small society to draw the audience’s attention to the relationship between the living and the dead. He therefore uses this setting to pose the following questions: To what extent do the revelers at the feast act as a true microcosm of the larger society? We believe that the revelers expose only a small faction of society. However, their thoughts and experiences reflected in the play demonstrate that like the victims of the plague in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, the experience of a plague or catastrophe forces the individual to switch his/her already established convictions from the idealized belief in the glorified society, to the glorification of the individual self.
SIDE NOTE: *How is Mr. Walsingham represented at the feast? Does he truly embody the character of a chairman seated at the helm of affairs, or does he stand in a representative for the audience watching the play?
The idea of hosting a “feast” during a plague was to celebrate that most of Mr. Walsingham’s group is still alive; that’s why they shouldn’t grieve over their dead friend and they should drink to the fact that they are still alive, and for the memory of their dead friend, Jackson. The Feast symbolizes the consumption of lives, the toast itself symbolizes life though they are actually toasting for a loss of life. Their act of enjoying what is left of life overrides their emotions of grief to the loss of a friend. They were feasting in the street, while a cart that is weighted down with the bodies passes by. Were they ignoring the fact that the disease is contagious or were they just accepting that death is inevitable? The Chairman started the feast by Mary singing a sad song. Mary’s song compares the church before and during the plague by saying it was “full of folk,” and “the steeple bell would sound.” However, during plague the church became “mute and empty,” “like a burned, abandoned homestead” (Pushkin, 96-97). This leaves us with a question: Why did people stop going to the church during the plague? Was it to avoid gathering because the disease is contagion?
In The Mask of the Red Death, by Edgar Allan Poe, Prince Prospero, the main character, decided to isolate thousands of people from higher classes in an abbey to protect them from a contagious disease called the Red Death. In A Feast During the Plague, the group was also celebrating during a plague but they weren’t trying to protect themselves from the plague. The group seems to accept the inevitability of death because they are feasting, while a cart that is weighted down with bodies passes by.
The question of “the bond” between the living and the dead does not lie with the physical or emotional bond per se, but with the choice of either acknowledging or denying those ties. The introduction of Mary’s ballad proves that there is indeed a convergence between the worlds of the living and the dead. In Mary’s ballad, there is no glorification of the isolated individual as “…there is no such thing as “we”: our church, our children, our fields. And in the disaster […], everything is we” (Pushkin 185). In fact, her ballad introduces an actual, physical example of the graveyard where the worlds of the living and the dead converge. The belief in the bond between the living and the dead is further strengthened as there is a reinstatement that that dead were once a part of the community of the living. So, even though the dead are not physically present, there still exists an emotional connection between both worlds that help to strengthen the bond. Even Mr. Walsingham acknowledges the link between the living and the dead. Mr. Walsingham beliefs that “…the nearness of death is an experience that sharpens the edge of of life, which intensifies one’s joy in living” (Pushkin 191). From this statement, we can infer that the living and the dead share similar experiences as they’ve both had to live on the edge of life. The only differences arise as the dead have crossed over that edge and the living, who haven’t, then use their experience to intensify their joy of living.
In A Feast During the Plague, one of the most touching moments is Mary’s song. The operatic account depicts the horrors and struggles of the wretched plague, whilst also following the doomed relationship between two lovers of this time. The final two lines of her hymn–
“All is still — the graves alone
Thrive and toll the bell”
–illustrate the binary contrast between the context. There was both happiness and horror. Pushkin’s purpose of the libretto was to emphasize the benefit of living in the middle rather on two binary extremes. This binary motif is illustrated from the title itself “A Feast” being held during the “Plague” a time of repulse. Although Mary’s hymn is important in its illustration, it is essential to emphasize the contrast by Walsingham, which contains a different note. Nevertheless, the binary does portray rather in appealing features after a while, allowing the reader to become comfortable with living a middle-class life. This was important during Pushkin’s time at the turn of the 20th century, as many changes were taking place in Russia, and the importance of the middle class was not as apparent with the traditional folklore or stories of royalty. To conclude, Mary’s song holds an important role in the libretto by emphasizing a binary contrast of the context, and the extremes that many should avoid.
Unlike Mary and Mr. Walsingham, Louisa refuses to acknowledge that a bond exists between the living and the dead. As expressed by the thoughts and words of Louisa, it can be inferred that for a bond to be existing between the living and the dead, there has to be a clear mode of communication. Louisa perceives the dead “were muttering in some hideous, unknown language” (Mary, stanza 1, lines 4-5). What role does communication play in establishing a link between the worlds of the living and the dead? Is verbal communication necessarily the only means of establishing a link between the two realms? The foreignness of the language, as expressed by Louisa acts as a means of alienating the world of the living from the world of the dead. So, the dead living and communicating in their own world can interact with each other and the living can do the same. But, there exists no bridged mode of communication to the link the world of the living to the dead.
How does the theme of love blur the contrasts between the glorification of the individual or the society,as established by Pushkin? (Pgs. 185-6) The theme of love as presented through the relationship between Edmund and Mary provides the audience with more food for thought outside the ones already highlighted by Pushkin on page 182. Pushkin, from the start of the play, has demonstrated a stark contrast between the living and the dead, and the glorification of the sole individual as opposed to the glorification of the society. However, the love that exists between Mary (who’s alive but is frightful of the plague) and Edmund (her lover) proves that the living individual chooses to exit, not for their own self-glorification or revelry — like the attendants of the feast, but for the glorification of another individual.
Interestingly, the translator of the play, Nancy K. Anderson, calls the young man’s proposal to toast for Jackson, a dead member of the feast, a form of “ugly egotism”, that he, as a member of a community, only displays caring for the ones closest to him and not necessarily the entire society. And Nancy points that his egotism roots from the deepest fear that the young man has of his possibly imminent death. Yet, isn’t it justified for him to put his life first ahead of others’ in such situation? This poses a question on the effect of a plague on a society: if it seems that the human egotism to preserve their own selves is natural, is the crumbling of society, as commonly found in literary works that present plague, inevitable in the face of disasters?
In The King Oidipous and Journal of a Plague Year, there are agencies — Oidipous in the former and the government of London in the latter — that seem to be responsible for efforts in putting an end to the plague and preventing the communities from falling apart. It appears that the cure for the plague comes from these agencies: Oidipous being assassinated and the government exercising the policy of shutting up houses of the infected. Yet in Pushkin’s play, these agencies are ostensibly absent, and this absence is perhaps why the people channel their frustration for a seemingly endless plague by having the feast. We may say that Mr. Walsingham holds the authority in the microcosm he creates at the feast table, yet even his proposed solution is that of ignoring the reality rather than confronting it. When he is criticized by the priest for initiating the feast, he shows his unstable stance on the approach towards the plague. The absence of scapegoat to yell at (like Oidipous) or government to turn to is what fuels the chaos rather prominent in the play. Everyone is caught up in their inner conflicts, and the audience, who may or may not have experienced a plague creeping into their cities, can feel this. Like Mr. Walsingham, who is left with his own thoughts after the priest leaves, this play, leaves us, too, in contemplation.
The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus is narrated by an anonymous character who declares that the purpose of his narration is to provide an objective account of a historical event, the arrival of the plague in Oran. One prominent theme present in this novel is indifference and denial of the plague by not just the general public, but also the doctors and the state. In addition to indifference and denial, we will also look at the ways in which people respond to the epidemic. The main question we will ask is: is it ethical (for anyone, let alone a state) to keep quiet from a disease that could potentially spread and kill millions? Is people’s indifference caused by the limited amount of information they have about the contagious disease? Should people be blamed for acting this way and for spreading a disease that they may not know existed? Whose fault is it in the end?
Before we begin, it is necessary to provide a little context which will help explain why people acted the way they did in the story. Oran is an “ugly” town with people who are mainly concerned about maximizing profit and business. Every day, they follow the same boring habitual routine, which consists of work, cinema, dining and trivial love affairs. The narrator describes Oran as a busy town where people are always occupied with activities that require good health and thus, illness is not the “norm” and the very few who become ill are unnoticeable. One important aspect of the town is that the citizens are “humanists: they did not believe in pestilence” (30). He calls Oran “a dry place” both physically (due to the horrible climate) and, most importantly, spiritually, meaning the “dryness” of its people, i.e. their lack of emotional concern about others.
The story starts with the unusual discoveries of dead rats covered in blood around the town both indoors and outdoors. The townspeople “had never thought that [their] little town might be a place particularly chosen as one where rats die in the sun and concierges perish from peculiar illnesses. From this point of view, indeed, they were mistaken and discovered that they had to adjust their ideas” [emphasis added] (20). For instance, a “boy was very excited by the business of the rats” but his father said, “we don’t talk about rats at table…From now on, I forbid you to mention the word” (24). Moreover, Castel, Dr. Rieux’s colleague mentioned that he has encountered something fairly similar to a situation of an epidemic in Paris but “no one dared put a name on it at that time. Public opinion is sacred: no panic, above all no panic” (29). Do you think that because these people are stuck in their own paradigm, i.e. being optimistic or fatalistic (24), makes them deny the seriousness of this disease (note when Dr. Rieux started to contemplate: “He could not imagine how such obsessions fitted into the context of the plague, and so concluded that, in practical terms, the plague had no future among the people of our town” )? Do tradition and social pressure play a role in the spread of a disease?
The Plague is an account that provides a description of the various ways people react and respond to an epidemic. It is evident how the idea of denial, or at least indifference, is present throughout the book. In the beginning, Dr. Bernard Rieux finds a succumbed rat on the ground in his building but does not give much thought to it, only after the number of dead rats increased day by day. The public begins to feel anxious due to the rapid growth of the dead rats but little action is being taken to solve the problem. No one seems to want to deviate their attention from themselves and their reclusive routines to deal with the situation. Moreover, when Rieux meets his mother and tells her about the rats, she was “not surprised” and said that “things like that happen” (13). In addition, when the priest mentions that “it must be an epidemic,” there was a complete shift in scene and no attention or concern was given to what was said (16).
Furthermore, some people have acknowledged that this disease is “fatal” but they cannot bring themselves to explain that it is potentially a “plague” (25) and “the press, which had had so much to say about the business of the rats, fell silent” (29). In fact, doctors who are only aware of two or three cases did not think it was necessary to do anything (29). Dr. Rieux also predicts that the government will keep silent as well. We can also see how Dr. Richard chooses to “not give away to panic”; how him and some of his colleagues mentioned that it was dangerous to jump to conclusions in science; and how the Prefect chooses to keep quiet about the disease (38). Only later did the Prefect take some preventive measures.
On the other hand, Dr. Rieux says that “perhaps we should make up our minds to call this disease by its proper name” (34). He mentions that when a microbe is capable of increasing, “that is precisely when we should rush to do something…If the disease is not halted, it could kill half the town within the next two months” (39) and “if we don’t acknowledge it…it still threatens to kill half the population of the town” (40). Do you think that because the state kept quiet about the disease (the papers do mention the rats with no reference to a disease), that this could have contributed to the spread of the plague? From the examples above, it is plausible to think that the more one keeps quiet about a disease, the more likely the disease will spread because people will not take safety precautions since they have no knowledge a plague exists. Do you think the state and the doctors kept quiet so that they would not occupy people’s minds with the possibility of the disease as the distress and acknowledgment could make them susceptible to the plague? As in, not scaring them with “unnecessary” information that could contribute to their overall well-being?
Thus, we can see that during an epidemic, the narrator believes that not only is the disease contagious but also the way people react to it or rather how they react to the authority’s procedures: “once the gates were closed….a quite individual feeling such as being separated from a loved one suddenly became, in the very first weeks, a feeling of a whole people” (53). What is the reason behind this “contagious feeling” of fear between the people of Oran? Is it because they do not trust, or they are beginning not to trust, the administration? Is it because the people of Oran are thinking on an individual basis rather than a collective one, i.e. thinking of the greater good for them and the outside world?
The plague has changed the way people react in their day to day life. There is a very interesting relationship change between individuals during an epidemic. It is even more fascinating in our case given the previous description of the town of Oran. When the city gates were open for people who already left before the time of the epidemic and wished to be reunited with their loved ones, the city saw “only one case where human feelings proved stronger than horrible death” (55). One might expect that since the people of Oran were so disconnected from one another, the silver lining of the plague may be the rebirth of a sense of unity and belonging to the people of Oran. Still, it seems that people did prioritize their own health over their unification with their loved ones. Are they to be blamed? Did this disconnect happen to avoid empathy, or is it because they cared only for their well-being?
As an endnote, we would like to link this to one of our previous readings: The Plague relates to Pushkin’s piece A Feast During the Plague (1830). In this play, the revelers choose to isolate themselves from the raging epidemic and continue living their lives normally, as if there was nothing going on that concerns them. They could have also been in a state of denial, just like the people of Oran, where they did not want to drown themselves in the sufferings of others. As we learn from the narrator’s descriptions, most of the people in Oran are obsessed with maintaining their “peace of mind” and this caused their indifference to traumas such as the plague. Is Walsingham perhaps similarly indifferent or in denial like the people of Oran by calling for a celebration? What about the rest of the revelers? In fact, can their feast that was organized as a society possibly represent a place like Oran and its reaction to this epidemic?
On the 23rd of July 2014, Barack Obama spoke at a $32,400 per plate fundraiser. Meanwhile, Vladimir Yakunin, a Russian businessman whose assets are being frozen and his visas blocked, updated his Facebook page with pictures of his family sailing in the Caribbean.
These factoids are especially crucial to us, analysts of Pushkin’s ‘A Feast During the Plague’ because they bring up ideas that resonate with much of what’s going on in the text. The satirical street-art on the left tells the story. Thankfully there isn’t a plague epidemic going around at the moment but the references to Pushkin in both articles are appropriate. For starters, many Americans believe that Obama giving yet another talk at a Silicon Valley fundraiser means that he is ignoring more pressing domestic and international concerns and instead feasting (literally). Yakunin’s Facebook posts show that he’s clearly escaping his personal issues (again, literally).
The characters in the play make a choice in how they react to the literal or figurative plagues that they respectively survive. We are given to understand that Yakunin and Obama are making a conscious decision too. But if we’ve escaped a plague, or something similarly nasty, do we have to behave in a certain way or do we have no such obligation? Would Yakunin be behaving in a more “sensitive” way if he locked himself inside his home in St. Petersburg and never saw anyone again? What’s wrong with taking your family on a cruise of the Caribbean when you can?
In the play and in the two articles, there is a kind of social removal. But the major difference between the articles and the play is what side of society the audience gets to see. In the play, we see the people who have escaped society and the plague, whereas the articles and the street-art reflect the thoughts of the larger society that the characters escape. His role as the President dictates that Obama has an obligation towards the people who face the problems he doesn’t immediately deal with, but do the characters in the plague have a similar responsibility towards society? Pushkin introduces the priest who raises this question. He tries to make the chairman feel guilty in the same way as the street-art tries to do. We don’t know what Obama or Yakunin feel, but we are given a glimpse of this survivor’s guilt towards the end of the play.
As we continue to read and contemplate on the topic of contagion, in A Feast During the Plague, we see different responses of people to the plagues or diseases. But, it is interesting to note that there is a common recurrent reaction to the plague among the books we have read or discussed. In Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, while a dreadful loathsome plague continues to spread and kill the people in the village, interestingly, Walsingham (the Chairman) and others feast, similar to that of Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell and that of Boccaccio’s Decameron. In the latter novel, the seven young women and three men leave the plagued city; on their journey, they choose a leader or a Queen who suggests each one of them to tell a story to entertain themselves. As already observed in the title of the play, some questions linger.
What is the significance of the feast during the plague? Why do people feast while their beloved ones are dying out there? Is it justifiable to be happy or feast while there are people suffering and dying? Just like in Decameron, are they trying to avoid the dreadful situation? Is it possible that Walsingham and others are trying to create a microcosm, through which they can escape the sad unwanted reality?
In the middle of the play, Walsingham sings and directly states the purpose of the feast during the plague. While questioning himself through singing what they can do, he says,
Old Man Winter we’ve beat back;
That’s how we’ll meet the Plague’s attack!
We’ll light the fire and fill the cup
And pass it round– a merry scene! (150-153)
These lines of Walsingham demonstrate that they, especially Walsingham himself, are trying to forget the current horrible wretched situation caused by the plague by mirthfully feasting or by creating a microcosm, the feast to escape reality. However, is it really possible to escape the reality? Pushkin questions the readers if it’s worth a try to avoid the horrible sickly situation. Through the appearance of the Priest near the end, Pushkin suggests that it is useless to avoid reality; one should confront the reality. This is illustrated when the Priest chastises and questions Walsingham for feasting while his beloved ones and others are dead. Eventually, because of the Priest, Walsingham again goes through the pain of agony. He is lost in contemplation, neither repenting nor reveling. The Chairman’s contemplation also leaves us, the readers, to also contemplate about question of facing or escaping of reality.
But, it is also interesting to note that while Walsingham tried to avoid the reality, throughout the play, it seems that he was not able to. Even from the very beginning of the play, the people in the feast are reminded of one of their friends, Jackson, who’s dead due to the plague. This irony of facing the plague while they try to escape through the feast is also seen when Walsingham asks Mary to sing “something sad and haunting, / To make us turn again to our merrymaking” (28-29). Mary’s song is a juxtaposition of the past and the present situation, which is full of dreadful mournful details. Even though they are feasting, whether they realize it or not, the people in the feast have been actually still confronting the reality.
The plague is also seen as a “guest” (8) like in the Journal of the Plague. Remember when the word of “visited” was used in the novel? It is interesting to see that many writers compare the plague as a guest. Probably the guest is like an unwelcomed or unwanted guest. But in this play, it also seems that the plague is very powerful. It is compared to a queen: “Now Pestilence, that queen of dread, / In triumph rides among the dead” (144-145). Why does Pushkin compare the plague to a queen? Why to a female, not a king? Is there a gender issue confronted in this play?We think that this is also an interesting question to think about.
Religion plays a significant role in this play too. The novels we have read included a religious figure. In the play, Oedipus The King the priest stands by the people and the leader. He is portrayed, by Sophocles, as a respected figure in the community as he supported the ruling family. Although, the priest in A Feast During The Play held a prominent position he is not respected by the people. There is no doubt that both priests were wise and religious, but one was respected by the public more than the other. Why are these religious figures recurrent in the novels? What do they represent and what is their significance? We will attempt to explore these questions by examining the priest in A Feast During The Plague. He is considered to be the enemy since he showed up at the feast without being invited land rudely approached the young group in an attempt to stop their gathering. He did so by questioning their morality; how could they have a feast when their loved ones have passed away. He questions their grief by reminding some of them of how they responded when someone dear to them died. Perhaps, the priest is an extended metaphor of the young people’s conscience. The feast, to them, is an escape from the pain they are facing and plague of the city. The young men and women have tried to isolate themselves from the grief and to enjoy their time. However, their conscience (the priest) attempts to remind them of reality. The entrance of the priest whether literal or metaphorical signifies how different people from various generation grieve. The interaction between the two generation shows the change of ideas on the plague.
While it is significant to read Pushkin’s play, it is still important to make a comparison between Pushkin and Wilson in order to have a better understanding of the point of view of each author. When comparing these two pieces there were many similarities and differences. What the plays had in common was the use of prose and poetry to evoke emotion from the reader and the reference to the plague as a visitor. Before reading the play, it is quite obvious that the structure of the play is in prose however, when Mary sings and the chairman recites his poem, the authors keeps the use of poetry and the rhyming pattern. This shows that while the translation of the play may vary, the emotion that the author wants the audience to feel is the same. They both want their audience to feel the effects of the plague. Secondly, both authors keep the reference to the plague as a visitor in the translation. By doing this, they personify the plague and brings the plague to life as if it were another character in the play. This also adds to the emotional aspect of the play and makes the plague more tangible.
On the other hand, there were some differences; however, two differences that stood out the most were the title of the play and the language used. Wilson named the play The City of the Plague. This shows that Wilson wrote the play from the perspective of everyone in the city while Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague title shows that he was only concerned with this feast that took place during the plague and what this feast meant. The language used was very different as well. Wilson, having published this play in 1816, wrote in an old English that, for modern readers, was quite hard to understand. Pushkin on the other hand adapted the play in Russian which was then translated to a modern English by Anderson as a contemporary writer. Both storylines were the same, but no extra meaning of the play was sacrificed based on the differences between these two piece of literature.
Hope we have made interesting points to talk about. Happy reading! :))
p.s. Even though it is in Russian, we thought that it is interesting to still post this video because this writing is a play, something we can watch. 🙂