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Staff Picks: Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

Book coverIf you’re looking for reading material to escape from the anxiety of living in a pandemic, that’s a great idea — we have plenty of suggestions for you, but you should probably skip this one!  For those who have been re-reading The Hot Zone or watching Contagion, this post is for you, and we want you to know that there’s nothing wrong with you: we get it!  At a time like this, when disease is on everyone’s mind, fiction and nonfiction about epidemics can offer guidance, or reassurance, or even just a safe space in which to process current events.

Disease was on everyone’s mind in London in the spring of 1722, just as it is around the world today.  Bubonic plague had struck the French port of Marseilles and threatened to spread to other major trade hubs.  In the midst of this fear and uncertainty, Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, published A Journal of the Plague Year: the fictional “diary” of a survivor of London’s last major epidemic, the Great Plague of 1665-1666.  He likely thought that just like today, people concerned about an impending epidemic might be interested in a story about one.

The fundamental task of A Journal of the Plague Year is to help readers picture something at once too large and too small to see: an infectious disease.  We cannot directly “see” the enormous scale of an epidemic, any more than we can see something as small as a microbe.  (That problem of not being able to see the disease particle itself was even more acute in the 1720s, when microscopes were a recent invention and the idea of tiny particles that could cause illness was still just a theory.)  Defoe’s narrator, identified only as “H. F.,” captures the experience of only being able to “see” the disease through its effects: symptoms like coughing and fever, or the eerie silence of a neighborhood under quarantine.  He captures the particular kind of dread, too, in not knowing whether those signs and symptoms of disease are reliable.  While most patients with bubonic plague exhibit telltale lumps, Defoe writes, sometimes those lumps were only discovered internally, after death; you can only be certain whether someone has the disease or not once it’s too late.  Just as it’s hard to know whether the disease is present or not in a particular person’s body, it’s hard to know where it is in a city or country either; as the situation worsens, reliable news gets harder to find and contradictory rumors fill in the gap.  Even the official documents, Defoe’s narrator reports, don’t always tell the full story: A Journal of the Plague Year includes regular updates on the death toll by neighborhood (the “Bills of Mortality”), but suggests that many cases may be unreported or miscategorized.  Defoe mixes these official sources of news with H.F.’s own experience and anecdotes he hears from others, creating a sort of collage — adding up different kinds of accounts into a sort of composite view of a problem that’s too big to know.

Above all, Defoe tries to make the plague feel real, despite (or perhaps because of!) the fact that its causes are too tiny and its effects too enormous for us to visualize.  Readers whose main experience with old texts has been high-school Shakespeare might be surprised by Defoe’s style: while his words and sentence structure may seem old-fashioned, his writing is very plain, much more interested in the facts on the ground than in flowery metaphors.  The narrator, after all, is a saddle-maker: a middle-class tradesman, practical rather than poetic.  The plainness of the writing has a sense of urgency and concreteness, as if to say there’s no time for fancy rhetoric because the things described are actually happening.  The more real the threat, the more plain the style, culminating in a moment when H.F. sees a mass grave of plague victims and is reduced to an inarticulate wreck: “it is impossible to say anything that is able to give a true idea of it to those who did not see it, other than this, that it was indeed very, very, very dreadful, and such as no tongue can express.”  This description of the mass grave as being too dreadful to describe (except as “very, very, very dreadful”) paradoxically makes it feel real because of the way it seems to have shaken the narrator.  The plague is a phenomenon we can only truly experience through its effects — here, though the effect it has on the narrator, who seems to be at a loss for words.

It’s not clear whether the Journal‘s readers thought it was literally a person’s diary.  The idea of realist fiction — of narratives that seemed plausible but were not literally true — was still new at the time; when Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe a few years before the Journal, it was similarly presented as a first-person account by a real person that Defoe had just “edited.”  That uncertainty about how literally the Journal was intended to be taken is perhaps fitting: like the plague it describes, its reality lies on the effects it has on its readers, effects that are at once uncertain and impossible to ignore.

There is a free audiobook edition of A Journal of the Plague Year available on Librivox and multiple e-versions available on Internet Archive.