Feast-Microcosm, Escape of Reality?

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. 🙂



Jenny, Shereena, Rhoshenda


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  1. Excellent post I have to say 🙂 It covers all the major topics discussed in the play. I was the most concerned with the issue of feasting during dark times. An argument presented by Solnit is that social paradise arises from hell in disasters, such as the plague. However, in Defoe’s novel people where frightened from the contagious nature of the plague and isolated themselves, they created social seclusion. In A feast During the Plague people again unite, create as you named it their own microcosm. The feast is the social paradise addressed by Solnit, but in a rather (un)ethical form. Whether it is right to feast during a plague, is difficult to determine. I will instead borrow the famous quite “in war and love everything is allowed”. During a deep crisis such as a plague the society as a whole is affected, and the ordinary social laws may not apply. Everyone deals with the sorrow in their own way, and I think it is no one’s business to criticise others behavior. I see the priest not as the consciousness of the youngs who are feasting, but as the state as described by Solnit, trying to fix things but with wrong approach. The priest protects the law of the church, but it is plague, it is war, and in war social norms can be bent. Again, no one can make the final cut.

    • This is quite true Evgenija, I personally think that we should be allowed to grieve the dead in whatever way we see fit without being judged by society, especially a society who mourns the dead. However, in defence of the Priest, we can consider Anderson’s argument in her essay on the play. Her interpretation of what Walsingham meant when he said the words, “so – for the Plague a hearty cheer,” was that Walsingham was saying that for him to show his satisfaction of demonstrating the courage to live another day, someone had to die. Therefore, he is celebrating his bravery for survival when faced with death. If we interpret Walsingham’s speech in a similar manner to Anderson, then I will have to side with the Priest in this for Walsingham comes off as very inhumane and cold. However, if we take the examples that Solnit presents in her book, then of course I agree that we should all be left to grieve the death of a loved one in the way that we see fit. What I am saying is that just as we should not assume that having a feast during a Plague is wrong, we should also not assume that one’s reasoning for feasting is right.

    • Hey Evgenija! Thanks for the comment. 🙂 I agree with you that whether it is right to feast during a plague is difficult to determine because as you have said, every individual has his or her own way to deal with one’s problems. However, I think dealing with the problem and avoiding the problem are two different things. When one deals with the problem, he or she tries to do something about it, not avoid it. I personally think that one shouldn’t avoid problems in general because we can’t eventually escape from reality, and I believe this notion is suggested throughout the play. For example, as I have already mentioned in the post, although they are feasting, whether they realize it or not, the people in the feast have been actually still confronting the reality. “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).” (from the post above). Furthermore, near the end of the play, in which Walsingham responses or replies to priest’s reproach, Walsingham says, “by the novelty of these furious revels, / And by the blessed poison of this cup” (214-215). While he seeks “novelty,” he describes the feast as “furious,” not merry. Also, while he says, “blessed,” Walsingham mentiones “poison.” From these contrast of words, it seems that the feasting is just a temporary solution (or not even to be extreme) and even worse, aggravates Walsingham’s pain and agony created by the plague. So, sometimes, to some extent, I think someone needs to intervene or criticize like the priest to trigger one to reflect and contemplate, somehow causing one to come back to reality and not avoid it since it’s meaningless to escape from reality.

  2. I agree with Evgenija, you guys covered many important topics in the play. I would like to focus on the gender question you posed. I actually did not notice that while I was reading the play. Why is the plague considered to be a queen? As I reread lines 138-155, I noticed that “winter” is personified as a military man, almost like a general. As you guys have mentioned, “pestilence” is personified as a queen. Of course the concept of woman and man was much different during Wilson/Pushkin’s time. Men were considered straightforward and sharp, in a position of leadership. Women seemed to have a more negative connotation, considered almost sneaky and seductive. The play describes “winter” with “boisterous might” who “leads” his legions into battle (sounds like a 19th century portrayal of a man). The “pestilence” is called a queen “rides among the dead”, which may mean that after the battle is over, then the queen comes along victorious, therefore she was not in the front of battle like “winter.”

    Another take on this gender difference could be related to what kind of things are personified either a man or a woman. Generally, countries are referred to as “she”, “her” or “mother.” Another example of something being personified as a woman is “Liberty” which one can see in paintings such as Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” or USA’s own Statue of Liberty. From this context, it sounds like “pestilence” has a mother-like attitude.

    I personally still am very confused why some things like countries and liberty are personified as women while things like “time” and “winter” are personified as men. What do you guys think? I feel like having a better understanding of this aspect in literature and society is crucial to comprehending gender in varying culture.

    • Oh, I think this is interesting. When I first noticed that the plague was depicted as a queen, not a king, I thought that Pushkin/Anderson was somehow touching on the issue of feminism. It probably might be that I have overthought about it? And about the use of gender to specify some things such as land, country, or time, I think for some words, not all, have certain connections to that specific gender. For example, usually, country or land is personified as women. I think the reason for this is that country/land has a connotation of sense of home, which makes us think of family, especially our mothers. Generally, mothers are at home most of the time, and they are the ones who take care of the family matters. You know, when you have many problems and your mother just gives you a warm hug, you feel comfortable, safe, and as if “everything’s going to be all right.” I think such sense of home and comfort created by mothers, caused people to personify country as she, not he (But, I do not necessarily mean that men are cold haha 🙂 There’s a stereotype or connotation of mothers being warm and comfortable. Just think about other languages like Spanish and French, all the words have genders. Maybe to some degree, there are reasons why certain words are personified as men or women. But, I don’t think all the words have reasons for it.

  3. Great job guys!
    I was struck by the fact that in most of the text we have studied, victims of the plague had tried feasting to forget the dangers and drink away their worries. In, Boccaccio’s Decameron the seven young women and three men leave the plagued city and make rules that they will not talk about the plague They wanted to think that plague did not even existed. They created their own world. However, in the Feast during the plague, they do realize that they are in grave danger and think that they are going to die with the plague. They are trying to enjoy the life as long as they live.
    These, two types of feasting tells us the different perspective of plague people had at that time. During Boccaccio’s time, people thought they could escape the plague. So, the seven women and three men fled away from the city. But in Puskin’s time, they think plague is inevitable. They don’t try to escape it, they are just trying to enjoy their time before they die. Unlike in Decameron, they frequently talk about the plague. These two writings, shows how people in these different times tried to run away from the worries of the plague and their beliefs about the plague.

    • Wow! Interesting interpretation! I didn’t really think about them not escaping the reality, but rather enjoying their time before they die. While they are feasting, they still are confronting the reality as I have mentioned in the post and in the comment to Evgenija’s comment. But, I still think that they are not merely enjoying their time before they die. The feast was first held by the chairman, Walsingham. Near the end of the play, he goes through this sense of internal struggle or moral dilemma after the priest reproaches him. From this moral dilemma and his deep contemplation at the end of the play, we can see that Walsingham experiences this struggle because of conscience or survival guilt. Because he tried to escape the reality, while he knew that he can’t actually, Walsingham goes through inner struggle and contemplates, neither repenting nor feasting. If he just tried to enjoy before he died, I don’t think he would have tried to justify his actions to the priest and eventually fall into a deep contemplation. So, Walsingham proves that they were trying to escape reality. And because the feast was held by the chairman, Walsingham, the play further suggests that they were trying to escape reality. :))

      • My point is that they know that the plague is inevitable. Fleeing the plague or weeping about it is not going to help. The reality for them is that they are going to die soon and they have to make the most out of life. I think Walsingham is contemplating about whether or not he should remember the dead instead of feasting rather than the reality of the plague.

    • I agree the differences between how the two groups cope with grief is clear. However, the young women in the Decameron lived together in the church and have lost their family a longer time ago while characters in the Feast During The Plague are recently experiencing the loss of loved ones. People’s first reaction to the death of a friend or family is very different from how they cope later. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wilson and his friends leave the town to live in the suburbs after realising that they are left alone in their quiet homes.

  4. First of all, I really loved your post you guys did a great job, regarding the point you made “. 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?” I think the main reason behind portraying the plague as a queen and not a king is historical convention. To be clear, a figure of a bad king is often portrayed as a mad men, a drunk , irrational , fat king. But when it comes to a bad queen, she is often portrayed as a wicked and evil queen. I think this is why the plague was represented in a form of queen cuz it represents the stereotypical image of a bad queen.

    • Ali! I think your interpretation is interesting and makes sense also. So, you’re saying that the stereotypical image of a bad queen creates a sense of plague being wicked and evil. Am I right?

    • I never thought of a “bad” king and queen to be different in this way! I believe, the plague was compared to a woman because they are both unpredictable. During that time, people did not know how the disease started and why did spread, just like how men try to understand women’s decisions and thoughts.

  5. Just a small comment on the gender issue in the play. Russian language has “gendered nouns” (all Slavic languages do, Roman languages as well). To clarify, it means all nouns are either masculine or feminine. It might happen that the Russian word for pestilence is in female, thus the queen contributed to it. For example, in Macedonian, the word for plague “чума” is in feminine, which could be the same in Russian as well.

    • Thanks for this side note! I think this makes sense! :)) I might have overthought about it. But, I’m just curious. Then, in Russian, why is the word, pestilence feminine? As I have commented in Wes’s comment, is there a relationship between woman and pestilence like between land and woman, or is it merely feminine for no particular reason?

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