For the last few weeks, we have been reading plays, articles, novellas, historical accounts about the plague. All of them are either factual or fictional. However, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is an interesting merger of fact and fiction. Although the book is presented as a personal experience of the plague in London, accompanied by statistics and research, it is categorized as a novel because it includes a great deal of hearsay and urban myths. Therefore, it is important to identify ways in which Defoe made this work of fiction become so real. In other words, how did Defoe achieve “verisimilitude” (the appearance of being true or real)?
Then, what could be Defoe’s intention to write in that manner? Was he trying to make a historical account more gripping by including urban myths? Or was he trying to make fiction seem more relatable by supporting it with statistics? To this second question, it might be helpful to consider the argument made by Nicholas Seager in the article “Lies, Damned Lies, And Statistics: Epistemology And Fiction In Defoe’s A Journal Of The Plague Year”: “Defoe moves away from a literal and absolute version of truth towards a fictional and representative one. Improbability is irrelevant, because the story tells a greater truth, signifying beyond its particulars: it is indicative, representative of the actual experience of plague.” (650).
Moreover, a large part of the novel was devoted to the irreligious practices that went on during the plague. Defoe alludes to people seeing fortune tellers and consulting with astrologers to see what fate there was for them in the stars. They did this in order to have some insight into their fate and whether they would contract the plague. These practices show that people of the time were straying away from the Christian values and traditions that involved God into the spread and fatality of the plague. Therefore, the outlet that people chose to take, such as seeking out the future, supports Boccaccio’s statement in The Decameron that, due to the chaos the Plague brought upon the people, traditional customs were evolving to suit the desperate needs of the people infected and the people around them. So, this draws attention to the fact of how much power the plague had in the disturbance it caused to draw people from one supernatural causal point, such as God, to others in search from their own comfort. Did this do any good? Did it actually bring calm to the people or give people false hope with the ‘Quack’ doctors and fortune tellers?
Another point to note when discussing the Journal of the Plague Year is the recurring motif of human suffering in the face of the tragedy. This is important because it thematically links our previous readings together, most notably Sophocles’ Oedipus, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Stearns’ “New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death.” Defoe’s novel adds another perspective to our knowledge of human suffering in a plague in terms of the psychological impact of the plague. For example, he mentioned people wanting to bury themselves in burial grounds because of their loss of family members: “There was a Strict Order to prevent People coming to those Pits, and that was the only way to prevent Infection: But after some Time, that Order was more necessary, for People that were Infected, and near their End, and delirious also, would run to those Pits wrapt in Blankets, or Rugs, and throw themselves in, and as they said, bury themselves” (53).
The novel also raises the question of theodicy. For example, why does a good, omnipotent God allow the suffering of its people? Why do disease and death exist? To what extent can the plague be understood as a test of faith? Or is it punishment?
In summary, some topics that are worth looking into are the genre of the book, human suffering, the psychological impact, irreligious practices, and theodicy.