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.