Love me, I’m not Contagious

Back in 2012, the previous Contagion group was chilling on the beach and reading Arthur Mervyn by Charles B. Brown… Today in February 2014, as the weather wasn’t too beachy, our group ended up eating strawberry cake, drinking pink smoothies indoors in an environment of red balloons, lovey-dovy roses and valentine cards, trying to find a quiet place to talk about sickness, death and contagion. However, we weren’t able to escape the contamination from the celebration. Infected by, most probably, the love in the air, we ended up talking about, well, love, and the role of compassion in environments hit by disease, just as in the novel Arthur Mervyn.

Having previously read A Journal of the Plague Year by D. Defoe and The Plague of Athens by Thucydides, plague seemed to be a phenomenon that impacted human relationships greatly, for people avoided risking their lives to help another person who is already infected.

For example, In The Plague of Athens, some parents abandoned their sick children, believing that is was best to save their own lives than perish with their infected loved ones. In A Journal of The Plague Year, it was evident that people reset themselves to a new level of communication, resulting in the creation of an intangible barrier to escape the contagion.
In Defoe’s novel, a dialogue between H.F. and a poor man is a great illustration of the barrier that existed between people.

Here I saw a poor man walking on the bank, or “sea wall”, as they call it, by himself. At last, I fell into some talk, at a distance, with this poor man…”Why,” says I, “what do you here all alone?” – – “Why,” says he, “I am a poor desolate man: it hath pleased  God I am not yet visited, though my family is and one of my children dead. “– “How do you mean, then,” said I “that you are not visited?”– “Why,” says he, “that is my house,” pointing to a very little low boarded house, “and there my poor wife and two children live,” said he, “if they may be said to live; for my wife and one of the children are visited; but I do not come at them.” And with that word I saw the tears run plentifully down his face; and so they did down mine too, I assure you.

As seen from the dialogue, the author didn’t dare come close to the man he greatly pitied, and the poor man didn’t interact with his infected children in fear of catching the infection himself. Were those the right actions?

Having this material in mind, the aspect that surprised us was people’s relationships in Arthur Mervyn. We found the contrasting relationship dynamics between Arthur Mervyn and the other pieces we have studied to be particularly interesting.

(Credit to:

In Chapter I, a doctor saw a very sick man on the streets and ended up taking him into his own house, where he and his healthy family lived.
The most perplexing part was the logic of such an action.

Let us take the poor unfortunate wretch into our protection and care and leave the consequences to Heaven” (Brown 6), said the doctor’s wife, revealing the fact that she was aware of the frightening consequences she might face, letting in a sick stranger into the house.

Why is this relationship so different from the one shown in Defoe’s novel? What drives people to help others, to show compassion and love, risking their own lives, just like Saint Valentine once did for his family? Philosophy? Faith? Just like the previous Contagion group, we find the reasoning of doctor’s actions very interesting:

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. (Brown 8)

However, is it only the belief in altruism that drove the doctor, or is religion a factor?

“The stranger was characterized by an aspect full of composure and benignity, a face in which the serious lines of age were blended with the ruddiness and the smoothness of youth, and a garb that bespoke that religious profession, with whose benevolent doctrines the example Hadwin had me rendered familiar.” (Brown 114)

From this quote, we see that Arthur perceived Dr. Stevens as a religious person. Our interpretation is that the doctor’s actions were influenced by religion, and by extension, Quakerism. Quaker folk held compassion and acceptance in high regard. Thus, many of their values and social movements, such as advocating for women’s rights and abolishing slavery, conflicted with the social norms at that time. Though Quakerism – or religion in general – was not as central in Arthur Mervyn as it was in A Journal of a Plague Year, it would seem that the compassion and altruism shown by Dr. Stevens could be consistent with religious values, such as opening up his home to nurse Arthur back to health, despite the risk of him and his family being infected with Yellow Fever. This notion is amplified by the fact that Charles Brockden Brown, author of Arthur Mervyn, was of Quaker background; perhaps this has influenced the creation of his characters.

How might we contrast ideas of altruism and relationships presented in Arthur Mervyn with A Journal of a Plague Year, or even The Plague of Athens?

All in all, as interesting as these ideas may be, we hope your Valentine’s Day wasn’t spoiled by the dark ideas of contagion.


Batu, Sarah, Victoria.


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  1. While the three texts we have read may seem to have different types of altruism or religious-based logic on deal with contagion, I find that there is one thing that is similar. After reading the second quotation from the previous post, I thought about how all three stories were very much set on letting a third party, or power I should say, take charge. To reiterate the quotation from Arthur Mervyn, “Let us take the poor unfortunate wretch into our protection and care and leave the consequences to Heaven.”(Brown 6) In The Journal of A Plague Year, H.F does the exact same thing. He willingly acknowledges the unseen hand God has in the spearing of the plague. He found it best to leave the happenings or the plague to God, while of course offering some other precautions. Even in Oedipus the King, when the community has come together to inquire who exactly is the cause of the plague, the townspeople are aware of Apollo’s role in justice eventually being served. That being said, whether there was direct reference to God or commentary on the heavens, all three stories showcase a knowledge of something bigger than the contagion itself, a force that could either make or break the people of their respective societies.

    • I feel religion on a personal and communal level gains an extra layer of importance during times of calamity. One of the most significant ones is of course the plague setting. It threat is not as immediate as a volcanic eruption for example, nor it is as tangible as a flood. People never see the “plague” but only its effects on people which shrouds it in mystery even deeper. When facing such a invisible foe which you know nothing about, most people return to the “third party”. Whether it be in Thebes, England or Philadelphia we see the effects of religions, small or big. One of the effects of such belief can reflect itself in the way people react in certain situations. This kind of a powerful force in the minds of the people can be the incentive for them to change their ways, in some cases to a more altruistic approach.

  2. In the defining moment, would I choose to aid a diseased person in need, or would I flee in my own self-interest? Does fear take over, or does one’s desire to do good prevail? This brings into focus one of the main tensions of contagion in human society; it puts the human conscience to the ultimate test.

    I agree with N.M’s comment above. Beneath the tension between altruism and self-interest that is present mainly between Arthur Mervyn and The Journal of A Plague Year, there appears to be a subtle acceptance of a higher power that determines the fate of what is subject to one’s compassion – thus affecting the nature of one’s supposed “altruism” or compassion itself. If the “consequences of Heaven” is such a definite concept, could such an understanding act as something that not only reigns the fate of the ill, but also the fate of the living? The decision to aid the ill or turn a blind eye – whichever decision one may take – may or may not bring about the disease to oneself. Yes, one can only hope that one is decreasing the possibilities of becoming diseased by minimizing contact with the diseased, but as depicted in A Journal of A Plague Year and the Plague of Athens: there is no definite escape from the plague. Those who take drastic measures to run away from the plague may find themselves having conducted the plague without the knowledge of having conducted it; many roam around oblivious to having already conducted the disease; and so on. Thus, noting the follies of the tactics to escape the contagion, it can be said that the “consequences of Heaven” or the “will of God” may be the ultimate statement upon one’s fate. If so (and assuming that the Heavens appraise the good over the bad), Dr. Stevens’ decision to aid Arthur Mervyn must have brought him a step away from the contagion.

    • I’m interested in the ideas that Moonie and N.M brought up. It seems that both of your comments are getting at the same notion of how being religious influences morals and actions in epidemics.
      While it is true that Dr. Stevens is inclined to take Arthur in for the sake of just helping someone in need, Moonie’s comment got me thinking about whether this action was entirely altruistic or not. As both a physician and man of religion, Dr. Stevens’ character, and consequently, his perspective on contagion, is an amalgamation of both religious and medical science beliefs. He believes in the “science” behind disease (which is why he believes sanitation and leading a healthy lifestyle will save him from the fever), but ultimately, he believes that God is the sole orchestrater of the spread of infection. Since Dr. Stevens does not believe in contagion per se, he therefore doesn’t believe that letting Arthur in his home and nursing him back to health will bring harm to his family. Just as you pointed out, Moonie, perhaps Dr. Stevens recognizes this, and takes Arthur in because he believes he will be rewarded for such an action. And perhaps some aspect of this reward involves protection from the fever.
      If we can draw this conclusion from Dr. Stevens’ action, would it be entirely correct to say that this action was entirely altruistic? Was he acting to save Arthur or himself?
      It could be that consciously, he was acting just to save Arthur. As a religious man however, performing good deeds in order to gain protection from the disease could haven been an underlying or ulterior motive.

  3. I’d be interested to see what you think about the ways religion does or doesn’t play a factor in Arthur Mervyn. Even in the passage quoted in the conveners’ post, Mervyn talks about Quakers in a way that stresses their earthly habits rather than their theology. Another way to think about this is to try to trace the relationship between beliefs and behavior in any of the novel’s characters? If you believe the fever is contagious, what’s the result? (In the long passage from the end of ch. 13 we read in class — where Mervyn first hears rumors of the fever — it would seem that a belief that the fever is contagious might lead you to leave bodies unburied, which then increase the problem 10-fold as they disease and pollute the atmosphere, for instance.)

  4. PS I should have caught this earlier, but the passage on 114, cited in the post, refers to a minor character named Mr. Estwick, not to Dr Stevens. Estwick befriends Arthur after he gets knocked unconscious at the start of ch 16.

  5. The difference between the reactions of Dr. Steven and H.F. upon seeing a diseased person, as mentioned in this blog post, greatly interested me. However, I disagree that the main cause for the difference were altruistic or religious reasons; instead I believe that it was due to the difference in individual’s understanding of the disease. Take for example Dr. Steven; he believed that the disease was not chiefly spread from person to person. This is evident from his belief that the best way to combat the disease is through “cleanliness, reasonable exercise, and wholesome diet” and not through “avoiding receptacles of infection”. Dr. Steven’s belief enabled him to approach infected Arthur Mervyn without reservation and enabled him to take care of Arthur. In the contrast, H.F. believed that the plague can be passed through personal contact. This caused him to have different reaction when approaching an infected, that was to be “at a distance” from the infected.

    The origin of the different beliefs can be further traced back to the individual’s experience with the disease. In Dr. Steven’s case, his job as a physician “required [him] to go daily into the midst of [infected]”, yet he was never infected. This experience gave him evidence to believe that the disease may not be passed from people to people. On the other hand, H.F. who lived in isolation and never met diseased people consistently on a daily basis and lacked the experience which Dr. Steven had. Furthermore, from H.F.’s observation the plague is passed through the “fatal breath” of the infected. These experiences made H.F. to believe that plague is passed through the infected.

    • I see the point you’re making and I think it’s a very good one, Ting-Che. However, before making the conclusion that Dr. Stevens acted out of his own self-interest, let’s look back at the quotes we used to prove the opposite.
      “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.”(Brown 8), states the doctor, revealing the fact that he was only more confident than others in the success of the measure his family and him used to defend themselves from the sickness, rather than fully sure the infection wasn’t contagious from person to person.
      Furthermore, as seen in page 5 of the novel, Dr. Stevens doubted on whether he should take in the sick man because “[his] family consisted of [his] wife and young child” (Brown 5).
      Adding on to that, the Stevens family let in an absolute stranger into their home, where they provided him with all he needed at their own expense. This is, to me, already a very altruistic action (or a religious one).
      Although it can seem that Stevens is very confident that he won’t be infected by having sick Arthur in his house, I believe he truly doubted whether he is putting his family into risk and what let him realise his kind action was his family’s (wife’s) belief that they should help others “and leave the consequences to Heaven”(Brown 6). Otherwise, the doctor would not doubt at all on whether he should bring Arthur into his house. But Stevens did doubt, for nobody really knew why on earth people died like flies (or mosquitoes haha) those days…

  6. I think Ting-Che’s on to something here: whether one’s motivating beliefs are religious or philosophical or medical/scientific, the novel suggests that we will act accordingly. In the world of fevered Philadelphia, the results (Stevens/Brown/the novel believe) could be disastrous. Note the special criticism for those like Thetford, whose contagionist beliefs lead them to behave in selfish and inhumane ways. But all those corpses decaying by piece-meal because no one is brave enough to touch them? They’re actually polluting the atmosphere, according to the novel, and making things even worse. So there are moral and medical effects to bad beliefs here.

    From a different point of view, we should think about the facts. Stevens’ position — the sanitationist one rather than the contagionist one — ended up having a broad impact, as Slack informed us, on public health, even though they didn’t understand how the disease was transmitted.

  7. The topic that we touched last time during the class is do we believe to the story of Arthur Mervyn? Can we consider the story of the young man who tries to survive in a chaotic world authentic? I personally think that the stories and the feelings that are described in the book could have happened during the plague invasion. The protagonist Arthur reveals a lot about life of his day in this new nation, and a lot of his struggles really resonate with some of the cases happening today in our lives. For instance, some freshman students found it challenging to travel all over the world to come to NYUAD and find the right group of friends. We see the same parallel in the case of Arthur: in Philadelphia, the newly formed nation, he struggles to find community and meaning. Arthur has to survive the disease and the society and attempt to find some sort of peace from himself.

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