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.
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
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