Defoe: DePlague

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is a unique text which provides both historical fact and emotional narrative in order to portray the experience of London during the plague. Defoe references (or re-creates) Bills of Mortality, policies, signs on door, etc. throughout his piece, which gives the text a historical tone, yet he weaves personal narrative and the importance of talk between people as ways to further legitimize his depiction of plague. 

A post from Feb. 2019 poses questions about Defoe’s intention in using this format. 

What could be Defoe’s intention to write in that manner? Was he trying to make a historical account more gripping by including urban myths? Or was he trying to make fiction seem more relatable by supporting it with statistics?

These are very important questions when we consider the motives behind Defoe’s writing. Regardless of the intent, however, the effect is that we both believe the sources presented, and are gripped through the personal anecdotes and intrigued by the accounts he presents of the city. 

If his intention was to depict both historical and narrative perspectives of the plague, Defoe does this well through examining the attempted minimization of the impact of the plague, showing initial human resistance to accepting its spread in order to maintain order and not become objects of surveillance. For example, measures were taken to conceal the extent of its spread. He writes, “for all that could conceal their distempers did it, to prevent their neighbours shunning and refusing to converse with them, and also to prevent authority shutting up their houses; which, though it was not yet practised, yet was threatened, and people were extremely terrified at the thought of it” (10). People attempted to evade social stigma and the authorities as well, trying to hide their sickness. But at a point, it becomes impossible to conceal, and measures are taken. For example, houses are placed under surveillance. Yet, families still escaped the constraints placed by the government. This shows a disconnect between the on-the-ground reality of the plague, of which Foucault writes (in “Panopticism”, talking about disciplinary power) that “the plague-stricken town, traversed through­ out with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city.” In fact, we see how the exercise of power is not totalizing and people managed to move around and spread disease beyond the rules of quarantine. 

Regardless of intention, Defoe has a very clear framework for considering plague. He regularly mentions the parishes, in fact his entire account of plague-London is almost always set-up through a geographical account of the city and especially its limit (a.k.a. the city walls). We see that the plague is not fully feared by Londoners until it breaches the wall, even though the affected sick are just on the other side, and people move freely in and out of ‘the city’. 

One of the key questions we ask here is how do physical and socio-economic barriers play a role in how people perceive the plague as a threat? Moreover, does having a wall to prevent the disease from spreading and reaching the other side? Do people find having a physical barrier a way of reassuring their protection? On the other hand, how much more does the socio-economic barrier help in preventing the plague from reaching the people or be it more exposed to them?

We can also consider these questions in the context of our discussions on the barrier indifferent nature of the plague which affects all regardless of class, race, gender, etc. 

Though Defoe’s plague may seem, at least early on, to not cross physical barriers, it certainly seems to affect people regardless of class. However, he is also acutely aware of the rich people’s ability to escape the plague. Defoe notes, “The Truth is, the Case of poor Servants was very dismal… and of them abundance perished” (28) – bringing up, and then going on to elaborate on the way the plague impacted the servile classes, who were forced to continue working and lacked access to adequate support or treatment. This is in contrast to the excerpt from the Decameron, where the servants are not given much attention and whose health is not of importance in contrast to the Brigata.

Defoe simultaneously praises government officials for taking any action during this chaotic time, but also criticizes them for their inefficient policies. For example, a policy of quarantine is enacted in which watchmen are sent to guard the houses of the diseased in order to ensure no one enters or exits the houses, however, we learn through “Defoe’s” direct witnessing, as well as through second hand accounts told to him that this and many other policies do not actually work. 

“This is one of the reasons that I believe, that the shutting up Houses by force and imprisoning people in their own Houses…it was rather hurtful having forced those desperate People to wander abroad with the plague upon them” (Defoe, 61).

This consideration poses the following questions: How should the government respond to mass-hysteria? To plague? If people don’t feel free, can they ever accept quarantine? How harshly should we criticise government in moments of natural disaster? 

Whether or not this text is reliable or simply engaging, it offers us a platform for considering many questions about plague, human experience, religion and society.


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  1. The question of the government’s role can be traced back to Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin, who both look at the state as an agent unto itself, one that takes the initiative to ensure individual and collective security, confiscating individual liberty if necessary to achieve its goal. Their idea becomes even more accentuated in cases of mass hysteria and nation-wide disasters; can we hand over our personal liberties to the government so that it can ensure the safety of the society as a whole? To what extent can the government be trusted to treat people equitably?
    In the case of a contagion – with its potential of further infection – the stakes become even more heightened. Which value do we put more at stake – the individual’s liberty, or the well-being of the whole? What’s the line at which we determine whether governmental action is correct? Can quarantine be a viable and effective mean of protection?
    The questionable aspects of quarantine – and other government actions – are topic I feel we could discuss in class: especially how circumstances such as contagion affect societal roles of various actors.

  2. “If his intention was to depict both historical and narrative perspectives of the plague, Defoe does this well through examining the attempted minimization of the impact of the plague, showing initial human resistance to accepting its spread in order to maintain order and not become objects of surveillance.”

    Like in Boccaccio’s Decameron, the narrative that was explained by Defoe depicted the different instances and reaction towards the plague, many of which were religious. Although hesitant and indecisive at the beginning, the narrator – who I assume is Defoe – believes that him staying within the city’s borders will save him from the plague, that it was a miracle he remained alive for so long. Him still being healthy and breathing was a sign from the god. If he were to leave, it would be disrespectful, and according to Defoe, divine justice will surely follow.

    What is interesting to me here, is how radically different Defoe’s theological views are to the prevalent and common beliefs of other people that decided to stay within the city as well. It was never explicitly mentioned, however, it seems that most people justified the plague to be a punishment from God unto non-believers and sinners. On page 23, Defoe recounts that a crowd of people he met claimed that they saw “an Angel cloth’d in white, with a fiery Sword in his hand, waving it, or brandishing it over his Head,” and one being able to ‘see’ this angel is supposedly going to survive the plague.

    My question in relation to this is, how and why do people react differently to the plague even though, in this case, the crowd and Defoe were both religious. Is each reaction/attitude based on factors such as one’s past experiences, education, family status, etc.?

    • The question of behavior and attitude towards the plague can be examined through several different lenses. Your emhpasis on religion raises some interesting questions, such as what was the peak of religion at that specific era? What were people mostly influenced by in regards to their religious practices? Was it imposed or a free-will action?The lenses I talk about here are exactly what you mentioned such as family, education, etc… Building up from previous class discussions, we learn that networks are a major part of an individuals life and so what were the networks during the plague time? It could be the journey’s people take or the community gatherings they sit or the towns they pass by. This concept could also be explored through Jackson’s The Human Network idea of networks undergoing ‘phase transitions’ from being collections of isolated nodes and small components to a network with a giant component (49).

  3. The role of the government within the context of Defoe’s book speaks to a much broader conversation of the manners in which individuals interact with each other during times of calamity. It is worth discussing the role of government; however, I believe there should be equal focus on the ethical and moral principles individuals apply towards one another. From these variations, one can analyze the ways in which such principles change when applied to different race, class, and gender groups. Therefore, one must constantly question how the collective body (e.g. the government) acts in either a similar or contrasting way to the acts performed by the individual.

    What keeps individuals ‘in order’ while chaos runs rampant throughout the city of London? Here, perhaps it is appropriate to reintroduce the topic of government as a mechanism of reinforcement to keeping order. Is it as Yoon writes of Hobbes and Bodin upon “the state as an agent unto itself, one that takes the initiative to ensure individual and collective security, confiscating individual liberty if necessary, to achieve its goal?” In what ways, if at all, is religion a comparable institution to government as a force to work against the chaos of the plague? The institutions of government and potentially that of religion brings us back to Harrison’s “Merchants of Death” and the implicit themes of power existent within his argument. Who remains in power, and how is power used within A Journal? Who does this power benefit, and who is ‘othered’ as a result of this power? While many of the questions above call for deeper exploration, what is beneath the surface of these topics is the differing treatments existent between the individual and the collective. When the dust settles, who is left? When they are found, where do they stand?

    • I think the “Merchants of Death” connection is super helpful, especially given the opening sentences. I also want to frame those opening lines, about the earliest viral communication about the plague, alongside the first appearance of the mortality stats a few paragraphs later — and use both to recall Virality‘s central question: What spreads with viral communication?

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