Some topics to consider in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year

“Bring Out Your Dead.” A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners, by Edmund Evans, c. 1864. The Wellcome Library, London.
(From The Zombie Apocalypse of Daniel Defoe)

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.


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  1. The mention of “verisimilitude”, above, is interesting because the story felt real. I think Defoe was able to achieve this because he used the first person narrative. Writing in the first person allows the reader to see through Defoe’s eyes, which makes the story seem more real.

    Equally important is your mention of the suffering brought by the plague which is similar in all writers we have read. However, Defoe takes the suffering to another lever. Other stories (Odepious,Decameron) describe the physical suffering caused by the plague but Defoe also hints mental suffering. People’s hallucinations in pages 22 and 23 stand out as the brain’s reaction to the extreme stress caused by the plague. Today’s science supports that extreme stress could make people vulnerable to hallucinations (

  2. Another important topic to discuss, as we brought up in class, involves public policy recommendations. Defoe gave credit to fictitious practices such as “absent citizens and noblemen elsewhere contributing to the relief of the poor left behind in the city” (78); “officials vouching for nurses to avoid robbery of the sick”(71); and creating more Pest-Houses. It is interesting to observe the almost idealistic roles Defoe assigns to public administrators and richer, nobler men in contrast to the great pity he shows to the poor, who he argues, constrained by resources, had little choice but to venture themselves near the sick or into public congregations in order to exchange necessities and subsist.

    I also find Defoe’s portrayal of rumor and imagination interesting in times of crisis. One recurring theme involves people dying of fright before even contracting the actual disease. Equally ironic is the fact that people actively feed into the fright and anxiety by spreading morbid rumors of nurses smothering or starving patients “at the father end of the town”(71). And even more interesting is that while Defoe criticized people for losing their mind seeking reliefs from quacks, fortune tellers and religions, he had faith in them of not being deplorably bad and dismissed the validity of these rumors using logic and reason.

  3. One of the compelling topics listed in the above post is that of the book’s genre. Although we talked a little bit about some potential motives that Defoe might have for writing this way, there are certain features of the writing the juxtapose one another.

    Despite the fact that this book is a fictional piece, it embodies many elements of nonfiction writing. For instance the use of precise dates and figures (Defoe, pg. 1-8). However, unlike a conventional novel, the journal introduces it’s fictional elements (like the characters) at a much later stage than the reader might anticipate. In fact, many of the earlier characters are some from the narrator’s hypothetical ‘real life’, like his brother and sister. Even though these characters appear briefly in the beginning, and act as influencing factors for the narrator to leave town, they seem rather realistic. Thus, the questions remain; why would Defoe give us a fictional account of a very realistic epidemic, especially, one which he claims is highly impersonal? What does it mean to write a ‘journal’ that is objective to one’s own personal experience? Finally, what justifies this intense blurring of the lines between fact and fiction?

    Furthermore, I think it is important to recognize that all of the accounts of the plague that we have discussed so far could be placed into three general categories: historical (non-fictional), fictional and theological. However, Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” struggles to even vaguely fit either of the proposed categories. Perhaps the ‘truth’ in Defoe’s book lies not in the technical details, but in the alternative reality those details help us create.

  4. The question of how Defoe manifested realism in a fictional piece intrigued me, especially when reading Rubincam’s comparison of Thucydides and Defoe’s plague narratives. To me, one of the significant questions is whether Defoe was influenced by Thucydides history, and whether it was Thucydides account of the plague that inspired his fictional narrative of the plague in London.

    It is also interesting to me how even in a fictional account, Defoe showcased his meticulous research and statistical figures he acquired through thorough research. My pre-conceived notion was that a historical narrative would contain more precise quantitative data and empirical evidence that a fictional one, but Rubincam’s exploration of the ‘primitive state of information science’, the inaccessibility of research data bases, and the lack of space on old parchments for footnotes. Perhaps, after all, it was scientific advancements and the intensification in connectivity caused by technology that resulted in Defoe’s rich data collection.

  5. I’m curious to see what you all think about the numerical data in the end. A lot of critics and historians have assumed that Defoe is using the Bills of Mortality to marshall hard facts for his policy recommendations or to lend authenticity to the narrative. But others suggest he’s either commenting on the processes by which numbers make meaning. The article that the conveners link to, by Nicholas Saeger, takes this position: “In the Journal, a binary is established between the anecdotal, subjective, and sympathetic account provided by the narrator, whom we know only as H. F, on the one hand, and the formal, objective, and cold records, purportedly hard facts, on the other. The Journal is structured so that fictional details, H.E’s stories, supply a greater truth, more representative of the experience of plague, than the quantified facts against which they are set. Defoe’s reproduction of the Bills of Mortality is widely understood as a tactic for lending the fiction credibility, as he tried to pass it off as authentic. Rather, the Journal can be understood as a statement about the fictitious nature of numerical data, a reaction to rather than an endorsement of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century quantification projects. H.E’s task on a simple level is to remind readers that plague is a collection of human tragedies rather than a set of statistics. On a higher plane, he constructs a record of plague that eschews pretensions to certainty or comprehensiveness, modestly aiming for a more partial and probable, reasonable and representative, version of historical knowledge. During his walks through the plague-ravaged city, H.E becomes a compiler of evidence and the assessor of its reliability” (640).

    Look at how numbers function in any given passage and H.F. seems as likely to put pressure on them or contradict them as not. But I see something else happening too: he talks about people reacting to the numbers, how the numbers make them feel or how they affect their behavior. His descriptions remind me of Sampson’s argument in Virality that what spreads, in a moment of viral communication, is feeling as much as it is specific content/matters of fact.

  6. The conveners mention the psychological effects of the plague on people, which I think is particularly interesting because the way our class has been approaching this topic so far has been mostly scientific or historical. However, we have not focused deeply on the personal effects of it. Although the group only mentioned a small incident of people thinking about people somewhat giving up on their lives after watching close relatives and families die in extremely large numbers. I think this is particularly interesting and important because the human part of these stories needs to be maintained when studying such historical events, in order for them not to get reduced to merely numbers and scientific data. However, I’m curious whether people think this has been done effectively in this book, especially as most of it has been written through the perspective of the attempting to be objective narrator.

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