Sympathy for the Plague

A Journal of the Plague Year eBook by Daniel Defoe - 9780486115238 |  Rakuten Kobo Greece
Cover of A Journal of the Plague Year

Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is narrated from the perspective of an unidentified male who relays the events that took place in London during the spread of the bubonic plague. In this post, we observe the role of the plague, the effect of socioeconomic circumstances, religion and its response to plague, as well as the motif of hope becoming desperation in Defoe’s work. 

What is the role of a plague in a story?

In A Journal of the Plague Year, we see people turning to “prophecies, astrological conjugations, dreams, and old wives’ tales” to seek guidance in times of crisis, while many switched their occupations to “fortune-tellers, cunning-men, and astrologers” to take advantage of the situation (p. 33). In the three works we have read so far (Oedipus, Severance, Defoe), the plague provided a backdrop that reveals some kind of truth about our society that would have been difficult to realize if not for the plague.

Illustration from a 17th century pamphlet on the effects of the plague on London.
Illustration from a 17th century pamphlet on the effects of the plague on London. Photograph: Science History Images

The disaster that descended upon Thebes forces its king, Oedipus, to find a solution, directing him onto a path that pushes him to discover his true identity. Shen Fever prompts Candace and her companions to reflect on their past lives, wondering if they are actually not unlike the fevered, who are simply mindless creatures who do things in habit. H.F., the narrator in A Journal of the Plague Year, noted that “these terrors and apprehensions of the people led them into a thousand weak, foolish, and wicked things” (p. 33). In all three circumstances, a deadly plague reveals an ugly truth about our norms, forcing us to rethink our old ways and pushing us to adapt. Thus, if we think of paradigm shifts as a chemistry experiment, then the plague is the catalyst which speeds up the reaction process so that the changes could take place within a few decades, when it should have otherwise taken centuries.

Another valuable factor to consider from A Journal of the Plague Year is the role of socioeconomic background in the response to the plague. We refer to a previous blog-post titled Defoe: Deplague by aah610, in which the author asks “how do physical and socio-economic barriers play a role in how people perceive the plague as a threat?” We propose that the rich were more hopeful because they had the means to escape town (believing they were escaping the plague) while the poor were desperate as they were forced to stay behind. The rich are able to close their residences and flee early on during the plague, while the poor are stuck in their homes. The poor’s lack of education is taken advantage of by people selling fake remedies and superstitions. Those with a higher social status are seen to have the privilege of escape throughout various fictional and nonfictional examples of contagion. In the Decameron, the members of the brigata came from a more privileged social class. They had the luxury to escape from the death and destruction of the plague and relax at a palace in the countryside. That fact becomes clearer with their treatment of the servants, many of whom are sent back into the plague-ridden city to collect supplies for the brigata. The same concept appears within Severance—Candace, a first generation Chinese-American, cannot justify the “escape the city” mentality Jonathan, a white man, has.

In a more relevant example, during the Coronavirus pandemic, it became obvious how more privileged individuals were enjoying the “break” lockdown provided. Simultaneously, low-income families were thinking about whether they would be able to survive the month or not with their sources of income so significantly limited.

Reading the Journal, it was interesting to see the issues that were discussed by Professor Stearns in his paper: How did different religions and sects understand and interpret the plague? What kind of measures were taken by these groups? How can we qualitatively compare the efficiencies of different religious views on the pandemics? In the Journal, we see a direct example of the complexity of such questions. The narrator decides his future based on his religious beliefs, signs, and interpretations. Is he fatalistic in such actions? Or, to put it more conflictingly, is the Christian attitude fatalistic? 

Some books are of extreme importance not only because they have a high artistic value, but also, they give scientists a depiction of our long forgotten past. For example, one reason some 19th-century novels are valuable is that they zoom in on the socio-economic reality of the households of that period. And, here, we have a main hero of the story, some proto-Will-Smith in I am Legend. He then decides his future, based on his religious beliefs, signs, and interpretations. Doesn’t that tell something about people back then? Doesn’t that tell something about people today? 

Additionally, a cycle of hope turning into desperation (then sometimes back into hope) is observed in Defoe’s work. The narrator of Journal of the Plague Year captures the transitions between fear/desperation to hope on page 10; “the next week there seemed to be hope again… but the following week it returned again”, “it” being the plague.

What gives people hope during a pandemic?

In Defoe, the narrator finds hope through his belief in God, which was strengthened when he read a line from the Bible that states “…Thou shall not be afraid for the terror by night…” (22). Ironically however, the narrator is quite critical of a woman who claims she had seen an white angel in the sky, while this message gave her and others around her hope, the narrator resigns himself to say that she was delusional, a word he uses to criticize those who have found hope in unconventional ways

A scanning electron micrograph depicting a mass of Yersinia pestis bacteria, which is the cause of the Bubonic Plague.
The bacteria that took the lives of thousands of people and is responsible for the bubonic plague.

Once the horrifying reality of the plague set in and citizens lose hope, the narrator recalls that “death was before their eyes, and everybody began to think of their graves, not of mirth and diversion” (45). The transition to desperation is illustrated in the way sick people were forced into mandatory lockdowns with their houses marked, the imagining of comets and ghosts, etc…

Ultimately we would like to end with this question:

Why do we hope during a pandemic? And how are we able to hope again even after desperation?


Afraah, Adi, Jennifer, Meera


 Add your comment
  1. I like that you discuss the disparate effects of the pandemic on people depending on socioeconomic status/privilege (alongside other factors), a theme that we have consistently seen in previous readings, and that you also decide to focus on hope vs desperation, something we haven’t talked about as much (although we did see this theme quite a bit in Severance).

    I would have liked to see some expansion on the intersection between these two themes by mentioning the opportunists (such as the fortune tellers and people with fake remedies) that preyed upon the desperation of the poor people that were unable to leave the city, and about the people attacking their watchmen to escape quarantine – the watchmen being desperate enough to take such a job, and the isolated being desperate enough to act so violently. But that’s just because these were the things that stood out to me when I was reading – the post offered helped me reexamine parts of the reading differently, which I appreciate.

    Thanks for a great convener’s post!

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about the final question about hope, and I’m curious what we might see as Defoe’s “answer” versus, say, Ling Ma or Sophocles.

    The post points to the narrator’s seeming contradiction of himself — the fact that he bases his own hope on religious beliefs, but criticizes others whose sources of hope seem more farfetched (based on angels, amulets, miracle cures, etc.) I wonder, though, if this act of criticism may be an essential part of what brings people hope during a pandemic. Does our hope come from remembering that other people have it worse? Defoe’s narrator seems to find solace in observing what the “common people” are doing, and considers himself as somewhat set apart from the commoners who he describes. This is a convenient position for the narrator of what we understand as a piece of historical fiction (not truly written in the moment of this plague), but it also strikes me as a useful insight into how we make sense of contagion in hindsight — how we reconstruct the pieces into a hopeful narrative. It is useful for people to be able to distance themselves from the general population, especially when they know other people were behaving in a way that now seems foolish.

    I think this is part of how Severance offers us a very different type of plague narrator than Defoe’s: Candace deliberately chooses to keep going into work, and passively falls in with the group of survivors; she doesn’t seem to think her response to pandemic is “better” or more reasonable than anyone else’s. Yet she constantly feels othered by the people around her and has a strong sense that she doesn’t belong.

    I’m curious to hear other thoughts on what Defoe is ultimately saying about hope during a plague!

    • I was also struck by how hope is represented at different points within the text, especially when it seems to all but disappear at the most severe stage of the plague. This quote on page 252-3 stood out in particular:

      “… It seemed enough that all the remedies of that kind had been used till they were found fruitless, and that the plague spread itself with an irresistible fury; so that as the fire the succeeding year spread itself, and burned with such violence that the citizens, in despair, gave over their endeavours to extinguish it, so in the plague it came at last to such violence that the people sat still looking at one another, and seemed quite abandoned to despair; whole streets seemed to be desolated, and not to be shut up only, but to be emptied of their inhabitants; doors were left open, windows stood shattering with the wind in empty houses for want of people to shut them. In a word, people began to give up themselves to their fears and to think that all regulations and methods were in vain, and that there was nothing to be hoped for but an universal desolation”

      Continued on p255: “when I say the people abandoned themselves to despair, I do not mean to what men call a religious despair, or a despair of their eternal state, but I mean a despair of their being able to escape the infection or to outlive the plague which they saw was so raging and so irresistible in its force”

      This quote seems to be saying that there is a limit to the ‘powers’ of hope, that it can only be stretched so far and endure so much, before it becomes impossible to maintain. Yet, even so, we see hope return once the plague subsides at the end of the book. In many ways, Defoe’s book is about coping mechanisms people used for survival, such as religious and superstitious practises, with hope being a strong coping mechanism in itself. The quote also reminded me of our earlier discussion of the comfort and familiarity rituals during Severance. In Severance, these rituals are a means in of themselves, without necessarily an ends to make them worthwhile. In contrast, Defoe highlights how certain rituals became ‘fruitless’ – they no longer seemed to serve a purpose.

  3. “Prophecies, astrological conjugations, dreams, and old wives’ tales” are clearly not just relics of London’s bubonic plague but very much something that people are once again turning to in the midst of COVID 19.

    “Nearly 70 percent of French youth between the ages of 18-24 believe in parasciences (including astrology, numerology, palm reading, clairvoyance and cartomancy)”, a trend that has grown in recent months

    Tiktok has also helped popularize many of these practices during the pandemic

  4. I would like to add two sources in order to aid to our discussion regarding Defoe’s “Journal of The Plague”. First source is a news article about how pandemic changes behavior of people to (don’t be too surprised) being nice! I know right, unbelievable. With all of the anti-vax, anti-masks, anti-common sense movements, it can be easy to feel as if the community is failing everyone, especially the most vulnerable (those who can’t vaccinate themselves, elderly, pregnant women and etc.) Despite all these negativity this article shows how “during these unprecedented times”, there still a little bit of humanity left through examples from the piece we are reading. I feel like this raises an important theme of community vs individuals. How “during these unprecedented times”, people have to think of themselves not as one, but as a whole, interconnected web, where actions of one directly affect everyone.

    Other source is, honestly, much more complex and can be (actually is) hard to read, since its an academic one. It is titled “Telling Figures and Telling Feelings: The Geography of Emotions in the London of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Due Preparations for the Plague (1722)” and trust me, it is worth to at least scim through. Here is a little quote that I feel like can help me to push you to check it out:

    “What really matters for Defoe is the human impact and suffering, and it is not so much the geography of the plague that he is writing, but the geography of the emotions of the London people.”

    So, while reading this text, one would understand how Defoe is not just describing history of the plague, but is actually documentnig an emotional part of the history. When he is talking about infants being born to dead mothers, trying to feed on the milk of a corpse, lying motionless on the cold ground. How the infected people are treated in inhumane ways, being locked up with no food and blamed by everyone even if they had no other option left. These atrocities and horrible incidents happening all in detailed description are analyzed and showcased in this text, so highly recommend to read/skim through 🙂

  5. Thanks for all of these comments. I like the ways in which your questions about hope — and its shifting terrains — segues nicely into Taman’s recommendation of the article on the geography of emotions. I’ve only had a chance to skim in but I like what I read — it’s a great way to think about what Defoe is holding up in tension with the numerical accounting of deaths. The more I read this book the more I realize he’s commenting on the affective dimensions of viral information: how the numbers (and rumors and even our own partial observations) make us feel. Is it too much to suggest he’s hoping to tap into a little of that?

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