Second, I just wanted briefly to follow up on today’s discussion by asking for some comments from you. Anyone can chime in. (And by anyone, I even mean people who’ve read the novel who aren’t in the actual course, as well as students who may not have an official charge to comment this week.)
We spent nearly an hour today talking about the last four paragraphs of ch. 13, in which the fever rumors first arrive at the Quaker country house Mervyn has retreated to:
My thoughts were called away from pursuing these inquiries by a rumour, which had gradually swelled to formidable dimensions; and which, at length, reached us in our quiet retreats. The city, we were told, was involved in confusion and panic, for a pestilential disease had begun its destructive progress. Magistrates and citizens were flying to the country. The numbers of the sick multiplied beyond all example; even in the pest-affected cities of the Levant. The malady was malignant and unsparing.
The usual occupations and amusements of life were at an end. Terror had exterminated all the sentiments of nature. Wives were deserted by husbands, and children by parents. Some had shut themselves in their houses, and debarred themselves from all communication with the rest of mankind. The consternation of others had destroyed their understanding, and their misguided steps hurried them into the midst of the danger which they had previously laboured to shun. Men were seized by this disease in the streets; passengers fled from them; entrance into their own dwellings was denied to them; they perished in the public ways.
The chambers of disease were deserted, and the sick left to die of negligence. None could be found to remove the lifeless bodies. Their remains, suffered to decay by piecemeal, filled the air with deadly exhalations, and added tenfold to the devastation.
Such was the tale, distorted and diversified a thousand ways by the credulity and exaggeration of the tellers. At first I listened to the story with indifference or mirth. Methought it was confuted by its own extravagance. The enormity and variety of such an evil made it unworthy to be believed. I expected that every new day would detect the absurdity and fallacy of such representations. Every new day, however, added to the number of witnesses and the consistency of the tale, till, at length, it was not possible to withhold my faith.
If we’d had a little more time, we would have moved from the micro-analysis of this isolated passage to a broader analysis of the novel at large (or the portion you’ve read so far). What connections can we make between the concerns of this passage — the patterns you identified so well — and the larger story? Do issues of language/storytelling/rumor — and the almost material qualities of language — have a place in the novel at large? What about the representation of the disease as martial or violent, an invading force? Is there a larger question here to be asked about the relationship between diseases and the language we use to describe them? What about the social and familial roles discussed here? How does the disease affect them, and how does the rumors’ preoccupation with such roles relate to similar concerns in the larger work so far? Do these concerns relate at all to the comments Kefa and Suel made regarding altruism? We’ll almost certainly return to these questions on Thursday, but feel free to get the ball rolling here.