Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year

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    Grant Glass

    Respond here to the selections for A Journal of the Plague Year


    The Great Plague: A Summon to Thankfulness
    Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is an account of life during The Great Plague in 1665 London. Defoe writes about the rumors of the plague and the secrecy surrounding them. The rumors begin to spiral around town but are finally cemented by the weekly bill of mortality. Throughout this excerpt, the bill of mortality serves to update citizens about the status of the city. As the infection begins to take more lives, the origin of the disease becomes inconsistent. Some believe that wizardry had a part citing a comet as the source of this belief. Others insisted that the events were “warnings of God’s judgments.” Even still, some trusted that the source of misery was not supernatural but that of natural causes. As deaths increased from hundreds to thousands, all seemed to agree that the cause of the plague was in fact by God’s judgments and the only solution was to confess your sins. As “consciences were awakened” and the confessions persisted, “the merciful disposition of God” prevailed. Deaths plummeted and citizens rejoiced in the omnipotent power of God. Defoe’s writing serves to describe his devotion to a higher power during times of death and sadness.


    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)

    Grace Sword

    I agree with how similar this journal is in relation to the pandemic today, and what the process of a pandemic looks like. I mean, within the first paragraph it starts off with talk of where the plague has been said to infect a city, similar to how at the beginning of the pandemic we were keeping track, and still are, where it spreads and the cases involved in said area. It’s also interesting to think about how technology really also affects the spread of the pandemic because mentioned in the journal, Defoe says, “We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumors and reports of things.” All I can think about is how I keep up with the pandemic through Twitter. If we didn’t have a media platform to use, without social awareness, I can’t even imagine how much worse the pandemic could be. However, I do find it very sad how much we haven’t changed in turning our nose away from the facts, that some people would rather follow, to put in your terms, “fake news” rather than actual scientific facts. You would think after hundreds of years, maybe we would get it right, but I guess not.


    Powerful response. I like your perspective and interests on these matters. Especially when you mentioned how history repeats itself. It makes one wonder where did we go wrong yet again? What does this mean and how will we respond this time? I could imagine this being impossible to figure out because there are many things to take into account within our society. Unfortunately, this speaks to how certain things are beyond our control. Either way it still forces us to take reflection. That, to me, seems to be what is most important: getting something out of what you go through. Also, asking yourself whether or not you’re doing something wrong can be a crucial way to figure things out. I feel like, generally speaking, COVID-19 has brought many errors to surface. We’ve got to learn someway or another sadly. It is always good however to look in the mirror and start with yourself. Happy to hear that the pandemic has decreased over in New Zealand.

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