Defoe: Spilling the Tea Since 1723? (Convener’s Post)

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is an elusive text. First published in 1722, it describes life in London during the Bubonic Plague through one man’s experiences and documentation. Though Defoe refers to it as a “Journal”, which is evident in the title of the book, it is debatable whether this book can be categorized as factual or fictional. It leans towards an objective account when it depicts documentation of the times, such as mortality bills, and then leans to the comparatively new fictional form of the novel when it conveys the emotional atmosphere of the plague, such as the descriptions of people’s suffering in both mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions. Today, Defoe’s book is categorized as a historical novel, which seemingly accounts for the dual nature of the book’s contents.  As this previous convener’s post notes, Defoe weaves both storytelling and documentation together, to paint a picture of London in its direst straits, describing all the facets (societal, classist, psychological, etc.) of London that the plague changes. 

  1. London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of all the Bills of Mortality for this Present Year (London: E. Cotes, 1665) 

2. Bill of mortality for the week of 19th–26th September 1665, which saw the highest death toll from plague.

We are interested in exploring the subjectivity of the documents and bills quoted by Defoe, as mentioned in the convener’s post above. The recurrent use of weekly mortality bills gives the text of the narrative sections an administrative, authoritative, and authentic texture. However, there is a corollary impression with this choice to emulsify fiction and nonfiction. With fiction and information in such close proximity to each other (they’re not social distancing!), it results in a situation whereas the narrative becomes more authentic, the documentation becomes more suspect. Specifically, Ellen Cotes’ ‘London’s Dreadful Visitation’ (Fig. 1), a collection of all the bills of mortality printed in London during the Great Plague of 1665, elicits a question of to what extent a primary historical document could be a product of manipulation or reconstruction. Labels on causes of death, such as ‘suddenly,’ ‘frighted,’ and ‘grief’ (Fig. 2) are in the approximated language, leading to a question of who assigned these causes to the deaths. Whether it’s in fiction or in reality, the attempts to cover up and distort the numbers of the pandemic have continued from centuries ago. However, such continuity does not take human societies’ adaptations to the nausea of statistics, percentages, and predictions (of the pandemic) for granted.

    “Preparedness, for Defoe, needed to be a closer collaboration between individual citizens and the state, one in which both parties understood their social and ethical responsibilities to each other. To be prepared involved much more human work.” — Travis Chi Wing Lau

Central to reading any piece of literature is the reader’s relationship and interactions with the text. There is no denying that reading A Journal of A Plague Year during a pandemic equips a reader with a lens through which one can further engage with and critique the text. For instance, the bills listing the number of burials per week remind us of daily COVID case announcements. The exacerbation of class issues and inequalities by the plague (as with the poor and the servants falling sick in greater numbers than other demographics) reminds us of the way the poorest and most vulnerable populations around the world today are hit hardest by the spread of the coronavirus. The lack of citizen compliance to home quarantine in the Journal when infected resembles our current-day anti-maskers and anti-lockdown rioters. Such close and jarring comparisons between our current pandemic and a legendary plague which took place hundreds of years ago, tells us a lot about the nature of governance and citizenship in crises.

The questions we had after grappling with the Journal’s elusiveness are these- What sort of literary form is most useful to warn our descendants of epidemics and pandemics, and to convince them to live in austerity that protects their community? Is it the objective form, such as through using mortality bills and statistical models? Is it the narrative form of exploring people’s grief and the dimensions of their suffering? Or do we combine both forms in as Defoe does? Which forms help us tolerate the uncertainty and subjectivity of plagues? And how can we spread useful information in a counter contagion? If A Journal of A Plague Year does warn us of times such as the one we live through, are we even paying attention to Defoe?


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  1. I think that the author knows very well that narratives carry a lot of strength, especially with public opinion and further public policy. Comets, alignment of stars and the shape of clouds telling us something is more attractive than the fact that there are astronomers calculating their motions.
    Probably the most scary and addicting feature of prophecies is that they are so easy to be true, depending on how they are interpreted. It is kind of the give a million monkeys typewriters type of story, but inevitably what people bring their attention to. And it is the emotional attachment to these stories that can shape people’s thoughts and experiences of an event.

    • Jihun,

      Thank you for your comment! You hit the nail right on the head. The power of storytelling is something that is still so relevant, and people have long used it to influence opinion and behavior. Certainly, Defoe was aware of the influence of narratives when he decided on the content and form of this book.
      Some other modern examples of this is political campaigns, marketing strategies, and even storytelling through religions. The relevance of using storytelling for influence makes me wonder if there are any ethical questions that may arise from the manipulation of public opinion using emotion-inducing, often ‘inspirational’ narratives.

      • I think you raise a good question at the end, Maitha. I often have the same question when looking at different movements and campaigns as well.
        Ultimately, what I’ve felt is that if you want a lot of people to rally behind something, you need to get them emotionally involved. Which may not be a bad thing. It makes one feel emotional to think of all the lives lost to injustice, but that is also what spurs action.

        Maybe emotions can be used to manipulate us, but that just means we have to be wary. Personally, I value empathy over apathy, so I’m okay with being wrong sometimes.

  2. Your comment reminded of me a nice article in the gazelle this week (link: , that in some way builds upon your point about the scary power of prophecies, where the writer (also an alumni of this course!) argues that this fascination with prophecies can also conflate with our behavior regarding modern day prediction systems leading to unreasonable trust in them.

    As a person who likes to dabble with how there prediction systems work, I also find this distinction pretty important, our current tools of prediction are in the end built by humans based on data about what happened in the past (which is also collected by humans) and should of course always be taken with a grain of salt and not as a prophetic saying. Even then, these systems have time and again proven to be quite helpful, and unjustifiable expectation in these systems (as prophetic devices) can lead to complete untrustworthiness in public image, hindering them from being justifiably utilized and constantly improved for better results.

  3. “The lack of citizen compliance to home quarantine in the Journal when infected resembles our current-day anti-maskers and anti-lockdown rioters.”

    I would like to slightly disagree with this parallel in the sense that I feel that many of the home quarantined citizens in Defoe’s Journal were generally in a much more desperate condition than the current times: shut in their houses with someone in their family actually infected and living with them, with the risk that the infection in front of their eyes could come for them anytime. I agree with Defoe’s remark- “’tis reasonable to believe, [they] would not have been distempered if they had had liberty”- this spread of infection from being forced to live together most probably led to multiple families being wiped out all-together (75). I definitely agree that in some cases in the current times, especially in countries with underdeveloped health systems, similar or even worse situation could be seen, however, in most cases, families have not been forced to live with their infected and risk their lives, and those not complying with the lockdowns and quarantines were not in situations as desperate as “the escape or get infected” condition of the citizens in Defoe’s Journal.

    Also, on a side-note, comparing our situation with Defoe’s Londoners, I realized how lucky we are to have masks as a working protection method against the infection. As masks make possible a lot of safe social interaction even during the contagion, I only wonder how worse could things be if we were without the idea of masks.

  4. Maryam Manzoor Amanullah

    If I hadn’t lived through a sort of quarantined period myself I would have agreed with the statement that “The lack of citizen compliance to home quarantine in the Journal when infected resembles our current-day anti-maskers and anti-lockdown rioters.”
    As mentioned above by Yaman, the people locked up at the time were in a much more desperate condition. Nonetheless, there are various parallels we can draw from Defoe’s description of the plague and what we see today with COVID-19. For example how the diseases rose and fell with similar patterns (though COVID-19 spread faster due to obvious reasons), the disruption of trade and travel, the fear in people’s minds, even the needs of prophecies and something to put our faiths in. Back then prophesies and predictions were made by reading the clouds and today our obsessions take place as we read into numbers, even from inaccurate sources. Back then just to earn some money quack physicians would give treatments to people that were of no use and would drown out any real advice given by doctors. Today we have the same thing with WhatsApp and Facebook videos that spread misinformation about how you can deal with the pandemic, drowning out important information given to us by professionals.

  5. “To be prepared involved much more human work.” — Travis Chi Wing Lau

    I would like to tie this back to an earlier statement in the post describing how Dafoe’s novel describes ‘all the facets (societal, classist, psychological, etc.) of London that the plague changes. ‘

    Dafoe spends an extensive amount of time describing the fate of the poorest members of the community and how their desperation to provide for themselves and their families made them fearless in the face of the plague. They became the ones who worked (as watchmen, nurses and other necessary jobs) supporting both the wealthier and more vulnerable members of the city. I could not help but draw parallels with the essential workers of today – the few who put themselves at risk to ensure the upkeep and survival of the many.
    It is indeed true that in the face of contagion, human work is needed to secure the lives of those same humans. The question remains, who is at the forefront of this much needed work? Outside of healthcare personnel, it seems that not much has changed since Dafoe’s time. It is still the working class that must put themselves at risk to maintain society. This troubles me even as I understand and accept the situation, as necessary.

    • Gabi, your comment and the quote you included at the top are very timely and encompassing of the question of work, survival, and the pandemic.

      It also brings me back to the comment that was made in one of our classes on “who is being affected the most” and why that matters for governments’ responses. It brings us to the reality that while so much has changed from the times of the plague, so much hasn’t. Inequalities persist, the working class takes the hardest hit, and (many) governments stand idly by except when a president or a minister is affected. While Defoe, in many parts of the book, tries to commend the governing bodies for implementing protective measures against the plague, his abundant narratives about the poor persistently reveal the dire inequalities facing the population and placing the working class almost as a shield between the plague and the rich.

  6. “What sort of literary form is most useful to warn our descendants of epidemics and pandemics, and to convince them to live in austerity that protects their community?”

    I have thought about this question a lot and even though I’d love for “A Journal of the Plague Year” to be the answer, it unfortunately doesn’t feel like it. I think the book was a great one to warn people of a pandemic maybe a 100 or 200 years from its publishing. But by now, books are already becoming a rare commodity. If anyone has the patience to read through at least a major part of the book (written in sentences you need to read twice), they probably already have the patience and sense to listen to scientific perspectives and follow them. The book is not really reaching the people who need these warnings

    That being said, I do think that the question of form is important. Even within contemporary writing, there are those who have offered social, economic, physiological and emotional insights into the pandemic. I think all of those form different parts of a whole picture. It is necessary for people to view these events through all these different lenses. And then it is much more likely that they can empathise and be warned for the future. Maybe Defoe was onto something, but his impact on the world today would be limited for reasons beyond his control.

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