Reply To: Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year

Home Forums Grant’s Sections Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year Reply To: Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year


The writing in A Journal of the Plague Year struck me as very journalistic and devout of emotions and personal stories. I found myself longing to find out stories of what happened to individuals affected by the plague: how they felt and they dealt with the disease emotionally. The narrator doesn’t reveal how he personally dealt with the plague and whether anyone from his family died. The author’s cold, matter-of-fact attitude to disease and death made me wonder if that was the general public attitude towards it. Was death so prevalent and everyday that people treated it with no strong emotions? The writing is comprehensive and full of facts that must’ve been well-researched even though the book is a imaginary reconstruction of historical events. H.F. is almost obsessive in his writing, especially when he discusses the specific increase in the death count and inserts tables with numbers of deaths.

Despite this journalistic, at times almost scientific approach I enjoyed reading the piece. H.F. writes of people’s behaviours changing in face of the crisis. These fragments reminded me of the current pandemic and at times I thought the narrator could easily be describing the Covid-19 Year instead of the Plague. When I read parts of the Decameron I remember Bocaccio wrote about the different ways people dealt with the plague and death knocking on their door in Florence. Some indulged in decadence, partying every day to make the most of what could be their last days on Earth and some left the city in fear – those who could afford it locking themselves in countryside mansions. Both Bocaccio’s and Defoe’s writing reminds of what’s currently happening around the world. This comparison shows that people’s attitudes to crisis never really change and history repeats itself. H.F. writes of s people leaving the city as if it was “doomed to be destroyed from the face of the earth, and that all that would be found in it would perish with it.”. I’m reminded of the big city middle and upper-class leaving for their summer homes in small towns because of covid-19 lockdowns. Many Parisians and New Yorkers did so, putting strain on the permanent residents of those towns, buying out stock from their small supermarkets and potentially overwhelming the local hospitals. The author also writes that people were too reliant on prophecies in times of the plague, saying that “books frightened them terribly”. Isn’t this similar to how many people would rather follow fake news about coronavirus that listen to science? The madness that develops in face of a crisis was present as much then as it is today, albeit in a different way.
The narrator also mentions that after plague passed, people on the streets tended to be fearful when they saw others covering their faces, or those with plague wounds out and about. I suppose that when the pandemic ends many will want to pretend as if it never happened. Behaviours such as still wearing masks will attract strange looks and I’m actually already noticing this where I live. Because I’m currently living back home in New Zealand where we have seen a significant decrease in cases rising with almost no community spread, hardly anyone wears a mask in public places. When I go to a park (happy that the crisis has been dealt with and trying to forgot the difficult times from weeks ago) and notice someone wearing a mask, fear of the pandemic strikes me again – I wonder if I’m doing something wrong.

Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. London, 1722. (Class e-version)