Money Matters

Reading Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, I found it interesting to compare how Defoe and Boccaccio describe society differently, and even though it is noticeable that the texts are not only separated geographically (Defoe’s in London, Boccaccio’s in Florence) but temporally (by almost 400 years), there are some similarities and differences.

The general sense of a crisis is similar in both The Decameron and A Journal of the Plague Year, and the seeming vacuum of power and authority is present in both texts. However, this vacuum is portrayed differently in both texts, and the difference may be a sign of their times. Boccaccio is much more interested in moral and religious authority: people are either engaging in debauchery, trying to remain pious, some people have stopped going to church, those who do risk exposing themselves to the plague.

A Journal of the Plague Year seems more interested in how the presence of the plague affects all monetary relationships in the city. From the very beginning, we are shown how money and capitalism behave differently in a time of crisis. The first instance of this behaviour is in the protagonist, H. F., and his decision to stay in London. Though he explains it as “Intimations” from Heaven —supported by the sortes of the Bible— (15), a material reason for his decision to stay is that he has a business to run. H. F. says that “[he] had two important things before [him]; the one was the carrying on [his] Business and Shop […] and the other was the Preservation of [his] Life in so dismal a Calamity” (11). Apart from H. F.’s example, the book is interested in how money changes hands during the plague, taking a particular interest in the rise of quack doctors, bootleg medicines, and fortune tellers.

This profit in times of crisis reminds me of market reactions to recent hurricanes like Florence or Harvey, and how basic necessities like water and gasoline had their prices gouged to $20 USD for a gallon of gas, $8.50 for a bottle of water, or a 300% increase in the price of a hotel room. The market’s reaction to crisis cannot be humanitarian because crisis is an opportunity for profiting off the people who cannot afford to leave affected areas. And even though some economists are all for price gouging, it would seem that A Journal of the Plague Year has a problem with those who would make a profit out of people’s fears, as the text seems to condemn a particular “Quack-operator” who would “give Advice to the Poor for nothing” but then ask for their money to buy his fake medicine. A woman, tired of the Quack-operator, decided to “[tell] her Tale to all the People that came, till the Doctor finding she turn’d away his Customers” called her and gave her a box of the medicine “for nothing, which, perhaps too was good for nothing when she had it” (30-31, author’s emphasis). There is something, then, to be found in A Journal when looked at not only as a depiction of life and society in a crisis as big as the plague, but also as a description of capitalism’s behaviour and response to human crisis.

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