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: Deplagueby 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?
Below you’ll find a few links that might be useful as you think toward our discussion of Severance. We’ll have a lot to do in a short amount of time. If you’d like to put some general questions in the queue — the kinds of questions you want to ask about this novel and how it works — please leave comments here or in the linked posts.
Here’s a convener’s post, centering on the question of memory and nostalgia. What do these topics, as they play out in the novel, have to do with zombies/contagion? You may find it useful to look at the kinds of questions my last batch of students put into the comments there.
Here’s a post that covers a previous cohort’s take on YouTube reviews of the book. How are these reviews different from the kind of analysis you might expect to do in this class?
In earlier iterations of this course we read Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One or viewed Yeon Sang-ho’s film Train to Busan. Thinking about the zombie figure in those texts, I wrote this brief post, which may raise useful questions for Severance, too.
In the fall of 2020 the online journal Post45 published a cluster of brief essays on Severance, approaching many of the novel’s key topics — gender, immigration, Asianness, global labor, publishing — in and beyond the context of Covid-19. The editors ask: “How did Ma predict the COVID-19 apocalypse? How did she document it before it happened?” The essays, which in many ways resemble the longer final essay you might write for this course, answer these questions in various ways. “Together,” the editors write, “our essays explore Severance as reflecting aesthetic, historical, and political economic conditions that long preceded and will outlast the height of the pandemic reordering of the world.”
Authors are not always the best readers of interpreters of their own work, but certainly their opinions about it are interesting. Here’s Ling Ma answering readers’ questions about the book, also from the perspective of the Covid-19 pandemic. Are these the same kinds of questions you have as readers? Again, feel free to help steer our discussion by putting your own questions in the comments section here. (Remember that your first question will go into moderation; I’ll approve it, and then you’ll be free to comment at will in the future.)
There are so many roads to Oedipus and so many ways we could take out of it to what comes next. Here are a few older posts, or multiple versions of posts, that can take us in a few of those directions.
I’d like to throw out two general areas for our consideration as we begin our discussion of Oedipus: First, the question of plague as material fact and as metaphor. To what degree can we think about the representation of plague in these separate ways — i.e., literal and figurative? To what degree are they conflated here? (This will be a question for us to continue asking as we go through the course.) The second general area has to do with social organization: What models of government or leadership are on display here? Kingship? Kinship? Social authority? Information networks? What does a plague setting offer to the play’s attempt to address such issues?
After all, the assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ve read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol? If this set of questions interests you, I’d point you in the direction of this recent book by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a classicist at Temple University in Philadelphia. You might also want to check out an even more recent article, written by a team at the University of Athens Medical School. It appeared this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, and “adopt[s] a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features” to conclude that “this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.”
My assumption, in that post, was that we’d approach the plague in Sophocles’s novel as either intended to recall medical situations Sophocles’s original audience would have recognized, or that the plague was being used metaphorically, to represent something morally “sick” about the community — or its leader. As I noted in that original post, we read this play at the start of this course not just to recognize how long the plague-as-metaphor idea has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them. From your reading of the play, do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? What would it mean to decide that “this epidemic was an actual event”? Does the plague become more or less powerful in the play’s world? And how might this set of questions force us to continue thinking even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and the language we use to describe it (and anything else)?
As may be apparent by the juxtaposition on the syllabus of Sophocles’ play against Thucydides’ description of the Plague of Athens — coming soon! — we’ll be talking over the next little while about the significance of genre here. Sophocles is writing a play; Thucydides is writing a history. How does the plague figure into each? How does each author represent it? What can narrative structure teach us about either work’s ideals related to self, social, or medical knowledge? And how might each work help us consider the question of whether it’s possible to write about disease in language that doesn’t trade in metaphor of some sort?
I will be curious to see how you think this first general area of concern relates to the second I mentioned: the play’s consideration of social organization or government, starting with a king who declares himself (warning! dramatic irony!) to be the sickest one of all, even as he attempts to get at the plague’s source. Are there ways to bring together the play’s take on what makes a good leader with Mark Harrison‘s historical consideration of the connection between epidemics and evolving notions of good government, which you read for last time?