Category: Literature

Moral Plagues on a Beachy Day

As we were reading Arthur Mervyn on the pristine sands of the Corniche, we could not help but be distracted by the azure Gulf waters and the towering skyline of Abu Dhabi. In a moment of reflection, we realized how our new life at this Arab Crossroad shared several key themes with that of Brown’s protagonist. Abu Dhabi is a city of both substantial wealth and gross socioeconomic inequalities, two ideas which shape the volatile character interactions within Arthur Mervyn.

The titular character, with his humble agricultural background, is intelligent and adaptable, but inexperienced in the norms of upper-class life. When he is exiled from his rural home, Mervyn is at the mercy of Philadelphia’s streets. Here, we find an essential theme which unites Abu Dhabi, Mervyn’s Pennsylvania, and Daniel Defoe’s London in Journal of the Plague Year. With sickness and socioeconomic inequalities against the backdrop of an urban landscape, class interactions take on contrasting forms under the influence of moralism, religion, and self-preservation.

At the first signs of plague in London, the affluent would flee the city out of panic, abandoning the poor to pestilence. Furthermore, as the epidemic seized the city, all interpersonal relationships crumbled — leaving each individual to fight for his life both isolated and despairing.

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is in some ways an antithesis to Brown’s Arthur Mervyn. The latter novel is introduced with a deed of altruistic charity. The narrator finds Arthur Mervyn penniless and stricken with yellow fever. Without scruple, the narrator invites Mervyn back to his house, where he is nursed back to full health. One might ask what the benefits are in risking one’s life for that of a helpless other. Inspired by a humanistic and moral obligation, nearly absent from the London populous during the 1665 visitation, the narrator quotes:

“I had more confidence than others in the vincibility of this disease, and in the success of those measure which we had used for our defence against it. But, whatever were the evils to accrue to us, we were sure of one thing; namely, that the consciousness of having neglected this unfortunate person, would be a source of more unhappiness than could possibly redound from the attendance and care that he would claim.”

This moral debt, which the narrator takes action upon, often arises when both philosophy and religion are confronted with plague. The practices of Islamic martyrdom (in the face of disease) and almsgiving are two principles highly present in modern Arabia and Justin Stearns’s examination of plague and Abrahamic faith.

But what is altruism? Defined as “selfless concern for the well-being of others,” we see in Arthur Mervyn, that like Yin and Yang, generosity is always complemented by greed. Quoting Brown’s titular character:

“…interest and duty were blended in every act of generosity.” (Brown, 27)

As yellow fever ravages Philadelphia, no good act remains unrequited. When Mervyn is most desperate, the wealthy Welbeck shows him charity, but not without its price. Bound to his benefactor, Mervyn is sucked into a world of corruption, betrayal, murder, and intrigue. The plot only thickens when Mervyn himself, and Welbeck, are confronted with yellow fever.

Under the societal pressures of a city devastated by plague, what would you do? Flee to the country in hopes of escape? Flock to the city in the hopes of some fortune? Ambivalence is inevitable, but choices necessary. What will go first, your life, your soul, or your resolution? Think about that next time you’re enjoying the beautiful waves and powdered sands of the Corniche.

“My poverty, but not my will consents.” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, V.i.75)


Allen, Adam, and Diana

Defoe and the history of the novel

In class today I mentioned two approaches to the history of the novel that may help us think with greater precision about Defoe’s novel as a novel.

The one I got to before time was up comes from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, which he began writing in 1771 and was first published in 1790. In the passage I read from, Franklin, who spent his formative years setting type and writing for newspapers, recalls the emergence of a new style of prose narrative around the turn of the eighteenth century. He begins with a chance encounter, during his initial voyage from Boston to Philadelphia, with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a book he knew well from his youth:

In crossing the bay, we met with a squall that tore our rotten sails to pieces, prevented our getting into the Kill,[25]and drove us upon Long Island. In our way, a drunken Dutchman, who was a passenger too, fell overboard; when he was sinking, I reached through the water to his shock pate, and drew him up, so that we got him in again. His ducking sobered him a little, and he went to sleep, taking first out of his pocket a book, which he desir’d I would dry for him. It proved to be my old favorite author, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in Dutch, finely printed on good paper, with copper cuts, a dress better than I had ever seen it wear in its own language. I have since found that it has been translated into most of the languages of Europe, and suppose it has been more generally read than any other book, except perhaps the Bible. Honest John was the first that I know of who mix’d narration and dialogue; a method of writing very engaging to the reader, who in the most interesting parts finds himself, as it were, brought into the company and present at the discourse. De Foe in his Cruso, his Moll Flanders, Religious Courtship, Family Instructor, and other pieces, has imitated it with success; and Richardson[26] has done the same in his Pamela, etc.

[Footnote numbers take you to the etext of Franklin’s book.]

There’s more to be said here about what this new mode of writing represented to Franklin, but at minimum we should note that he associates it with popularity and with aesthetic experience — with a kind of voyeuristic pleasure, as if we’re allowed to eavesdrop on characters. Certainly Defoe got high marks from contemporaries for excitement, in spite of the fact that some of us found his account of the plague a little tiresome between the zombie episodes.

The second version of the history of the novel I wanted to bring to your attention is perhaps best represented by the classic 1957 text by Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, which places Defoe, Richardson, and to a lesser extent Fielding at the center of the history of the English novel. Watt’s book was an important departure from dominant modes of criticism in the middle of the twentieth century in his interest in plotting the relationship between society and social institutions and the production of literary works. (At that point, the dominant New Criticism advocated reading literary works as enclosed worlds, separate from the real world of authors and readers.) Watt offered an enduring analysis of eighteenth-century English novels that suggested the genre’s importance to understanding the rise of the middle class (especially the rise of economic liberalism, or liberal individualism) and the spread of Protestant values. He suggested that the novel didn’t simply reflect these changes but actually participated in them, by helping to form new kinds of reading audiences. He draws attention to Defoe’s significant contribution in creating memorable protagonists — Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, etc. — who are believable individuals. The novel’s association with individualism is present even in the tendency of early novels to take on the names of their protagonists. (Think not just of Crusoe or Moll Flanders but of Brown’s Arthur Mervyn, which we read next.) Watt thinks individualism’s emergence has something to do with Protestantism, especially its enshrinement of individual dignity and labor, but also recognizes the appeal to readers of imagining a character’s entire life, of identifying vicariously with a central character who is at once heroic and quite ordinary. We don’t just want to eavesdrop on characters, he’s suggesting. We might want to be like them, or perhaps even to be them, which is perhaps precisely what someone like Defoe wants from us.

Watt’s account has been subject, over half a century, to criticism on several fronts, but it remains enormously influential, even as authors seek to replace it with new histories that recognize transnational influences or the centrality of early female novelists. I’d like to take up some of these issues again on Thursday, when we’ll also return to the question of H.F.’s medical opinions. See you then.


These breathed Death in every Place

As he pushes toward the conclusion of his narrative, H.F. reiterates his view that the plague is caused by personal contact with the infected:

Here also I ought to leave a further remark for the use of posterity, concerning the manner of people’s infecting one another; namely, that it was not the sick people only from whom the plague was immediately received by others that were sound, but the well. To explain myself: by the sick people I mean those who were known to be sick, had taken their beds, had been under cure, or had swellings and tumours upon them, and the like; these everybody could beware of; they were either in their beds or in such condition as could not be concealed.

By the well I mean such as had received the contagion, and had it really upon them, and in their blood, yet did not show the consequences of it in their countenances: nay, even were not sensible of it themselves, as many were not for several days. These breathed death in every place, and upon everybody who came near them; nay, their very clothes retained the infection, their hands would infect the things they touched, especially if they were warm and sweaty, and they were generally apt to sweat too. (150-51)

It’s worth noting that Defoe’s narrator is taking a hard medical line here, as he has elsewhere (see also 64 and 85, for instance), as a contagionist. That is, even though he often describes the plague as beyond human understanding, he’s pretty sure he knows how it’s being transmitted, and he doesn’t think it’s just somehow magically floating in the air (see 152). He’s rejecting an alternate theory to the person-to-person contagion model, that people contract the fever from polluted air, not from direct contact with the infected. Nor does he think the plague is simply an act of God without natural means attached, though he comes close to taking that position, also in the conclusion (191).

Among the other things this novel does, then, is make a medical argument about the origins and transmission of the plague. The literary critic Barbara Fass Leavy, whose 1992 book To Blight with Plague has been useful to me as I’ve prepared to teach this course, suggests that both theories — the contagionist view and the miasmatic view — are “morally charged. Miasma has to do with a world of widespread material corruption, and as such is easily translatable into a metaphor for the antithesis of civic virtue, which assumes the possibility for society to be organized for the well-being of its citizens.” Leavy argues further that “The idea of direct contagion serves [Defoe’s] purposes better than miasma” because it presents a more dramatic situation for his narrator, who believes contact with the sick is what spreads the disease, yet chooses to remain in the infected city. Thus his dilemma isn’t simply avoiding polluted urban areas, but having to negotiate contact with fellow human beings who may or may not be carrying seeds of infection in their very breath. And he has to do so without seeming to advocate what he calls “a Turkish predestinarianism.”

How do you understand the connection between H.F.’s beliefs and his actions, as he recounts them, in the face of the plague? And how might this question be related to this book’s place in the history of the novel as a genre? We’ll take up these questions on Tuesday.

P.S. Of course both the contagionist and the miasmatic positions were wrong. Bubonic plague was transmitted by fleas like the one pictured above.

Solomon Eagle, an enthusiast

1835, by George Cruikshank (English, 1792-1878), illustration in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (published by Thomas Tegg and Son).

Some went roaring and crying and wringing their hands along the street; some would go praying and lifting up their hands to heaven, calling upon God for mercy. I cannot say, indeed, whether this was not in their distraction, but, be it so, it was still an indication of a more serious mind, when they had the use of their senses, and was much better, even as it was, than the frightful yellings and cryings that every day, and especially in the evenings, were heard in some streets. I suppose the world has heard of the famous Solomon Eagle, an enthusiast. He, though not infected at all but in his head, went about denouncing of judgement upon the city in a frightful manner, sometimes quite naked, and with a pan of burning charcoal on his head. What he said, or pretended, indeed I could not learn.

— Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)


Heard in ordinary Discourse

With Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague year we shift from plague frameworks (as in Oedipus and The Decameron) to a full-blown plague narrative, an historical novel that was presented to the public, and in all likelihood understood by its original readers, as an authentic narrative of a plague outbreak. Defoe’s novel was published in 1722, in the aftermath of a plague epidemic in Marseilles, which had generated a lot of newspaper press in London. But the book purports to be an account of the city’s last great outbreak of the plague in 1664-65, some 57 years earlier. To put that gap in perspective, it’s roughly like a book or movie today being set during the 1950s. Maybe the better comparison would be to a narrative or film that claimed to have originated in the earlier moment, and to offer an historical eye-witness.

We’re going to be hard-pressed to take on the question of factual accuracy in Defoe’s narrative, though there is scholarship out there on the subject if you’re interested. Rather, I want to pay attention not just to representations of the plague, thinking about how they may relate to Defoe’s moment as much as to London in the 1660s, but also to other patterns that run through the text. One key issue, I think, becomes apparent from the very title page. Note the full title, and think about how it prepares us for the novel’s concerns. We have the question of genre and generic distinctions up front (something we’ve already been talking about), but also this matter of “publick” and “private.” Why call attention to these categories on the title page? The word “publick” comes up again in the title page’s gloss on the anonymous author: “Written by a CITIZEN who continued all the while in London. Never made publick before[.]”

Publicity seems to be a key feature of the novel’s opening paragraphs as well: The story starts not with the outbreak of plague, but with the narrator’s first exposure to “ordinary Discourse” about the plague’s return to Holland. The story precedes the actual visitation of the plague; what might the adjective “ordinary” mean here? Look at how many times “they say,” “some said,” “others said” appear in the sentences to follow. The opening paragraph seems to focus as much on chatter as a genre or sociological phenomenon as it does on the content of the gossip, though clearly the content is such that it’s instilling extraordinary fear in the narrator and his neighbors. Now look at the second paragraph’s opening sentence: “We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv’d to see prictis’d since.” I’d like us to start our discussion of the text tomorrow with a reading of these opening paragraphs. What’s the connection between invocations of “the publick” on the title page and the attention to publicity and the circulation of rumor/information, whether in speech or print, in the novel’s opening lines? And where might an historical novel pretending to be a recently discovered factual account fit into such a discussion?

Therapeutic reading

In addition to continuing with our discussion of Sophocles today we’ll likely turn the corner to a consideration of the frame narrative and First Day of Boccaccio’s Decameron: a quick leap over a thousand-plus years in time.

What remains consistent between or at least similar in the plague frameworks for these works? That’s one question we’ll ask. But I’m struck by generic differences as well, especially the shift from theater to novella. The Decameron is about storytelling, and the effects of storytelling, to be sure, but it’s also about reading stories about storytelling. Note that Boccaccio directly addresses a female reading public at the outset. This invocation — and the predominance of female characters — will give us a good inroad to discuss the role of gender and gendered bodies in the selections you’ve read.

A couple quick resources that may be useful to you: The best Boccaccio site I know of is the Decameron Web, a long-standing project of Brown University’s Italian Studies Department and Virtual Humanities Lab. In particular, pages devoted to the plague and to various literary contexts, medieval to postmodern, should be relevant to our discussions. Note the page devoted specifically to the narrative frame, which will take up much of our brief consideration of this work.

That material can be glossed quickly at your leisure. If you’d like a more specific and intensive engagement with recent criticism on The Decameron, you might want to look at recent special “Italian Issues” of the literary journal MLN. (You can view these search results from a secure NYU connection; almost all of the Italian issues have something re: Boccaccio.) Of special interest to us: Irene Albers, of the Freie Universität Berlin, writes about the specifically medical relationship between storytelling and the body in Boccaccio’s text. A few key excerpts should suggest why this would be an important topic for our consideration. She starts by focusing on two familiar approaches to the frame narrative: parallels between plague and other disorders (here, specifically, lovesickness), and the narrator’s claim that by beginning with the descriptions of plague, the pleasures brought by the hundred stories to follow will be heightened by contrast:

The analogy between Plague and lovesickness is also based on the fact that the emotions in Boccaccio’s work, according to premodern theories of emotion, are external instances and entities which “overcome” and “seize” the subject. They are not the result of “elezione,” but of the “appetito,” which does not obey the will.31 This is reflected by the use of common metaphors from the realm of nature, like the fire metaphors that often appear in passive constructions: “essendo acceso stato d’altissimo e nobile amore” (3); “in fiero furore accesa” (189); “dello amor di lui mi s’accese un fuoco nell’anima” (893); “di subita ira acceso.”32 In other cases, the passivity of the subjects is shown by verbs like “venire” and “cadere”: “ed andando gli venne un pensier molto pauroso nell’animo”; “cadde in un crudel pensiero” (165). The analogy between lovesickness and plague corresponds to the doubling of the frame: if the narrator in the “Proemio” offers his book to the women as a medicine for lovesickness and “malinconia,”33 the [End Page 34] “therapeutic fiction”34 of the frame means that the storytelling can offer protection from the Plague. Accordingly, one cannot understand the novellas as mere diversion from the catastrophe of the disease.

The final sentences there deserve our consideration in class this week: If we’re asking what purposes the plague frameworks serve, we have to ask whether storytelling here is merely a form of diversion from the plague’s devastation or if something bigger is at work. Albers argues that the characters themselves understand storytelling to have physiological, and potentially curative, effects on their bodies:

It is not in the novellas alone that characters react bodily and emotionally to what they see and hear. Such situations are also formed in the frame narrative, in the commentary following the individual novellas, in which the reactions of the brigata are conspicuously portrayed as bodily. This first occurs among the narrators: in the introduction to the tenth novella of the first day, Pampinea says that when a person wants to use storytelling to cause others to blush, he often ends up blushing himself.83 The same applies when one tells of others’ tears, “raccontar l’altrui lagrime” (354), the words with which Fiammetta announces the Ghismonda novella. The narrator of a novella also becomes moved himself—in rhetoric, this is a well-known requisite for the successful transfer of emotion to the audience.84 The occurrence of such a transfer is demonstrated by the many references to the audience’s blushing (63, 247, 560), sighing (392, 185), crying (159, 366, 763), “compassione” (159, 392, 418, 738), and above all, their at times uncontrollable and boisterous laughter (48, 71, 100, 142, 185, 479, 556, 575, 593, 644, 674, 681, 702, 710, 763, 802, 817, 842, 843). Often, multiple reactions occur simultaneously. After the Masetto novella (III.1) some of the women blush while the others laugh: “Essendo la [End Page 50] fine venuta della novella di Filostrato, della quale erano alcuna volta un poco le donne arrossate e alcuna altra se n’avean riso, piacque alla reina che Pampinea novellando seguisse” (247). Or the women blush first, only to break into laughter: “La novella da Dioneo raccontata prima con un poco di vergogna punse i cuori delle donne ascoltanti e con onesto rossore nel loro viso apparito ne diede segno; e poi quella, l’una l’altra guardando, appena del rider potendosi abstenere, soghignando ascoltarono” (63, cf. 560). The narrator of the Decameron apparently finds it important that speaking about passion and hearing novellas have direct bodily effects, causing, according to the medical assumptions of the epoch, either the expansion (in laughter) or the contraction (in weeping or sighing) of the heart. The humors are set into a motion that “cleans” the subject, or frees him from harmful emotions and humors.85

Is The Decameron holding up an early model for a talking cure? Let’s spend more time today and Thursday talking about the bodies in and the implied audiences for this week’s texts.

He is the plague, the heart of our corruption

During our opening discussion of Oedipus the King — which centered primarily on the question of whether and how the plague in the play really matters to the remainder of the drama — I mentioned that one feature of writing about epidemic disorders from many times and places is a comparison between disease and breakdowns in language or communication. Epidemics are often accompanied by rumors — about their origins, effects, and remedies. This is certainly something to keep an eye out for as we move forward, paying close attention to variations on the theme as much as to its ubiquity.

I’d like us to pick up a similar topic when we resume on Tuesday: the question of plague as metaphor or allegory. Some readers of plague narratives assume that literary treatments of disorder or sickness are “merely” metaphorical — that a playwright or novelist is less interested in an actual medical crisis than he or she would be in using a plague setting to represent something like moral or political corruption. This assumption makes a certain amount of sense. Plays and novels, after all, are something other than a medical treatise, and accounting for the literariness of literary texts is very much something we’ll be interested in this semester. In the case of Oedipus, moreover, the characters seem to model for us a set of connections between plague and moral disorder: the solution to Thebes’ crisis, Oedipus echoes Apollo’s oracle, is to find Laius’s murderer and

Drive him out, each of you, from every home.
He is the plague, the heart of our corruption[.] (ll. 275-76)

By the end of the play, Oedipus seems to have internalized the city’s sickness, taken it on himself. The messenger declares that he’ll need assistance in his exile because the “sickness” is “more than he can bear” (l. 1429).

But a recent strain of criticism on the play recuperates some older efforts to take the plague context more seriously. 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.”

I’d like us to consider the question of plague-as-metaphor when we pick up our discussion tomorrow. Do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? Are both views valid? And how might this set of questions force us to think even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and language in general?