“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see …”
And see there is a deadly plague in town.
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? A Feast 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.