In 1722, Daniel Defoe published Journal of a Plague Year, a fictional account of life during the 1665 plague that hit London - at the time, a work that many assumed to be factual.

Our digital primary source archives offer researchers a way to compare the contemporary coverage of the plague with the fictional representation presented by Defoe. In this case study, we take a look at the coverage of the 1665 plague using the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection, with articles from newspapers that covered the spread of the plague across Europe that would likely have influenced Defoe's novel, along with some wider resources.

Context and background

  • Daniel Defoe

    Taken from: "Defoe, Daniel." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol. 2, Gale, 2009, pp. 459-463. 

    Daniel Defoe has been called the father of both the novel and modern journalism. In his novels, Defoe combined elements of spiritual autobiography, allegory, and so-called “rogue biography” with stylistic techniques including dialogue, setting, symbolism, characterization, and, most importantly, irony to fashion some of the first realistic narratives in English fiction. With this combination, Defoe popularized the novel among a growing middleclass readership. In journalism, he pioneered the lead article, investigative reporting, advice and gossip columns, letters to the editor, human interest features, background articles, and foreign-news analysis


    Persecution, Plague, and Fire Defoe was born sometime in 1660, the youngest of three children, to James and Alice Foe in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate, just north of the old center of London. The year 1660 also marked the restoration of the monarchy in England. King Charles I had been executed in 1649, and the British monarchy was abolished. The English king was considered head of the Anglican Church, so the execution of Charles I had religious meaning as well. England was ruled by a representative, and Puritan, government for the first time, headed by Oliver Cromwell. Defoe's parents were Presbyterians and Cromwell supporters. Thus the return of the Royalists (supporters of Charles II) was something of a tragedy for them and others of their faith, for they were Nonconformists or Dissenters to the established Church of England. The Royalists established a series of punitive laws against Dissenters, much as the Puritans had done to Anglicans during Cromwellian times. Thus young Daniel Defoe was plagued from his earliest years by a sense of ostracism and discrimination on account of his beliefs.

    Little is known of Defoe's youth, but it is highly likely that he was on some level influenced by the Great Plague of 1665, which at its peak killed one thousand people a week in London, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, which halted the plague but devastated the city. Defoe would later write of the plague, although it is doubtful whether he actually experienced it on a personal level. The Great Fire, however, certainly touched Defoe more closely, for it transformed London from a city of wood to a modern metropolis rebuilt in brick and stone.

    A Scholar and Businessman 

    When he was sixteen, Defoe attended an academy in Newington Green, north of London, operated by the Reverend Charles Morton. As Dissenters, members of the Foe family were barred from attending the elite universities at Oxford or Cambridge, but at Morton's academy Defoe gained an enduring love of science. He also developed an ability to write with not only clarity but also “Energy,” as he termed it.

    After three years there, he set out into the world of business. Off and on for the rest of his life, Defoe would work as a businessman in England and Scotland. In his career, he sold stockings, speculated in land, expeditions, and inventions, imported goods from Continental Europe and the New World, and operated brick and tile works. He was at times successful, at others careless, and often unfortunate. By 1703, his business dealings had forced him to suffer several lawsuits, two terms in prison, and two bankruptcies.

    In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a successful merchant. They would have seven children together (though by some accounts Mary is believed to have given birth to at least eight), yet little is known about Mary and the relationship the couple shared.


    Politics and Intrigue 

    During the 1680s and 1690s, Defoe's activities centered on two fronts: commerce and political involvement. His far-flung business and investment ventures culminated in bankruptcy in 1692, and he was left owing his creditors the monumental sum of seventeen thousand pounds. Before this point he had already spent two terms in debtors' prison; with bankruptcy he sought refuge in London's Whitefriars, the site of a former monastery that remained a sanctuary where warrants could not be served. There he came into contact with thieves and prostitutes, characters who would later fill the pages of his fiction.

    In 1697 he published his first important work, Essay upon Projects, and four years later made his name known with his long poem The True-Born Englishman, his effort to counter a growing English xenophobia, or hatred of foreigners. This poem, which satirized the prejudices of his fellow countrymen and called the English a race of mongrels, sold more copies in a single day than any other poem in English history. It was about this time that Daniel Foe began calling himself Defoe.

    In 1702's The Shortest Way with Dissenters, Defoe wrote anonymously in the voice of those who would further limit the rights of Dissenters, exaggerating their positions in an attempt to make them appear absurd. Unfortunately, Defoe's satire was grossly misunderstood. He won scorn from both sides of the issue and was accused of seditious libel, lying to stir up rebellion against the government. Once arrested, he was forced to spend three consecutive days in the stocks, each day in a different part of London. The authorities thought that such a punishment might lead to death for the headstrong writer, as did Defoe, who attempted to mellow public sentiment against him by writing another poem, A Hymn to the Pillory. It was published on the very day he was put into the stocks; instead of stones, those who came to see his punishment threw flowers.

    Defoe's time in hiding and his prison term sent his business into chaos, forcing him to declare bankruptcy for a second time. Thus, when a proposal to work for the Tories was put to him, Defoe readily agreed. His prison term was cut short on condition that he work for the Catholic monarchy, turning his considerable propaganda powers to the service of the state rather than the criticism of it. Among other duties, he spied on fellow Dissenters and others who were against the ruling government.

    Working for Secretary of State Robert Harley for a fee of two hundred pounds a year, Defoe founded the Review of the Affairs of France, with Observations on Transactions at Home in 1704 and continued writing it for over nine years. That the paper promoted Harley's views—pro-Anglican, anti-Dissenter, against foreign entanglements—did not seem to bother Defoe, who had the ability to write from different perspectives. He produced the journal two to three times per week for almost a decade, laying it to rest in June of 1713. During that period he sowed the seeds for modern journalism, exploring the issues of the day through reporting and commentary while including poetry, letters to the editor, advice columns, and schedules for local events.

    Robinson Crusoe Defoe's lasting fame for most readers lies with the book that he published in 1719, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, better known to modern readers simply as Robinson Crusoe. Defoe had long been developing the tools of his trade: point of view, dialogue, characterization, and a sense of scene. With Robinson Crusoe he put these together for the first time in a continuous creative product. Employing the form of a travel biography, the work tells the story of a man marooned on a Caribbean island. He quickly followed it with The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720).

    Like all great creative works, Robinson Crusoe lends itself to myriad interpretations: as an allegorical representation of the British Empire, an attack on economic individualism and capitalism, a further installment in the author's spiritual biography, and as a lightly veiled allegory of Defoe's own life. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the novel was read widely by Defoe's contemporaries in England. It was the first work to become popular among the middle and even lower classes, who could identify with Crusoe's adventures.

    With the success of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe saw that he might turn even a better profit than he had with his poetry and pamphlets. As a result, the period 1719–1724 saw an enormous output of work.



    In 1722, Defoe published Moll Flanders as well as Journal of the Plague Year and Colonel Jack. He was not content, however, with this achievement, but interspersed the fiction with several nonfiction books of history and social and religious manners. Another fictional biography, Moll Flanders is told by Moll herself to a rather embarrassed editor who cleans up her language. In its pages, Defoe was able to use the criminals and prostitutes he had rubbed shoulders with during his time in hiding and in jail.

  • Journal of a Plague Year

    Taken from: "A Journal of the Plague Year." Novels for Students, edited by Sara Constantakis, vol. 30, Gale, 2010, pp. 187-205.

    A Journal of the Plague Year is written as one man's recollection of the year 1665, during which the plague ravaged London, where most of the action of Defoe's novel takes place. The narrator is known only by the initials H. F., with which he signs the account upon its conclusion. The work reads at times like a detailed journalistic report, and as such has been criticized for having "no plot of any kind," according to critic Edward Wagenknecht in his 1943 study of the English novel, Cavalcade of the English Novel. Although it lacks a formal plot, the novel is structured around the spread of the plague from the western parishes to the east of London. (The narrator's geographic descriptions of London are based on the city's divisions into local church parishes.) The narrator tracks the progression of the disease through London using the bills of mortality, essentially a body count, produced by church parishes on a regular basis. The book opens with the narrator's observations about the first cases of the plague in England in September of 1664. After an isolated instance in Drury Lane, the narrator comments on the cases cropping up in the parishes of St. Giles-in-the-Fields and St. Andrews. Other reports follow.

    During the winter, the number of deaths from the plague fluctuates, but there is no great explosion thus far. Still, the narrator observes that fearful people who remember previous outbreaks of the plague are fleeing the city, seeking to isolate themselves from the possibility of being contaminated through contact with the population of London. H. F. himself considers whether or not to join his brother, who is also secluding himself and his family at their home in the Bedfordshire. The narrator's views on this decision change rapidly. After falling ill, though not with the plague, the narrator feels as though his decision has been made for him; his brother has already left, so he resolves to remain in London.

    As the weather warms, the narrator notes that the plague, or distemper as he often calls it, begins to claim more victims. Yet the perception of many in London at the time is that the plague seems to be confined to the outlying parishes, which are poor, densely populated communities. There are attempts among inhabitants of the city to find divine explanations for the plague, and the narrator, as well, makes comments throughout the novel regarding whether or not the plague should be viewed as a punishment by God or a judgment on mankind. H. F. continues to trace the gradual spreading of the plague, repeatedly citing the parish bills of mortality. At the same time, the narrator includes anecdotes about individual experiences. He recounts how people discovered the signs of infection—spots of gangrene and swellings upon the neck and groin—upon their loved ones, and how panic spread as quickly as the infection.

    The treatment of the infected and the dead are subjects of particular concern to the narrator. He tells of the way infected families are shut up in their homes and not allowed to leave, to prevent the spread of infection. Critical of this policy, H. F. discusses at length his views on why this practice is impractical and notes that this forced confinement leads to individuals being infected who might have otherwise escaped contamination. He also claims that it intensifies the sense of panic and desperation and therefore causes the confined people to find a way to flee their homes. The plague is spread by these desperate people bursting out and either running away in secret or perpetrating violence on the watchmen assigned to keep them in their homes. H. F. advocates instead that healthy people either leave the city or procure supplies and voluntarily confine themselves to their homes in order to prevent contact with infected individuals. He also points out that many people do not know that they are contaminated and go about their business on city streets, unknowingly infecting others. Treatment of the dead is another topic the narrator discusses often. He speaks of the carts in which the dead are collected and the mass graves in which they are buried. His tone is one of objective, journalistic curiosity on the matter, and in general he praises the city officials for their efforts to collect the dead in a timely fashion, as it is believed that the disease can spread through contact with the bodies. The narrator also regards the plight of the poor with sympathy, since to avoid starvation they are forced to accept positions—such as handling the dead—that are laden with the risk of contamination.

    As the plague spreads further into London, the narrator observes that many of the city's inhabitants are unprepared, having thought that the plague would confine itself to the outer reaches of the city. This is one of the primary reasons H. F. cites for the heavy toll the plague takes on the population of London. People are forced by a lack of provisions to intermingle with one another, and they cannot sequester themselves voluntarily while they are healthy. At this point in the narrative, it is early summer, and the number of plague deaths has increased dramatically. H. F. has just described in detail the horrors of the plague for pregnant women. He then begins an extended anecdote about three healthy men who decide to leave London and its miseries behind in the hope of preserving themselves against infection. The men are designated by their names and occupations, and like the unnamed individuals in shorter anecdotes, they represent any number of individuals who experienced similar fates. They are John, the biscuit maker or baker; his brother Thomas, the sail maker; and Richard, a joiner or builder. The three men join forces and finances and strike out into the countryside, avoiding areas where the plague has been rumored to have struck and struggling to make their way on roads sometimes blocked by officials attempting stop the spread of the disease by halting travel from town to town. They band with another group of plague-free individuals attempting to safeguard their health through escape and eventually set up a semipermanent campsite, where they remain for several weeks. Near the end of September, the group moves one final time, to an old house in disrepair that is made habitable by the efforts of the group. The narrator details the ways in which, with the cautious help of the townsfolk who live near the campsite and, later, the community near the farmhouse, the three men and their companions are able to survive.

    Although the narrator functions primarily as a witness to the events in London, the reader does learn, throughout the novel, some of H. F.'s own experience. He discusses the way he secludes himself in his home at least for a time and later is appointed as an examiner (someone charged with visiting homes to determine whether or not they should be closed off and those inside sequestered). It is an appointment to which the narrator strenuously objects, and he admits that he was able to pay someone to do it for him and only served in the position for three weeks, rather than the requisite two months.

    By the late fall of 1665, the plague has begun to loosen its grip on the city, the narrator observes. As fewer people become infected, and fewer infected people die from the plague, the narrator comments on whether the plague arose from natural causes, or whether it was visited on the people of London as some form of divine judgment. A case could be made, he asserts, for a view that incorporates both arguments. With the end of the epidemic in sight, the narrator summarizes some of his main observations. He is convinced that the best medicine is avoidance: running away from London or otherwise hiding oneself away from the plague. He criticizes individuals who, believing that they were protected by God against becoming infected, were not careful to protect themselves. He also discusses the effects of the epidemic on the local economy and on foreign trade. By February 1666, the narrator notes, the people of London "reckoned the distemper quite ceased."


    Religion and Spirituality

    Religion and spirituality play a central role in Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year and are of primary personal significance to the narrator. His personal sense of spirituality is revealed through his revelation that he turns to biblical scripture to aid in him in deciding whether to remain in London or flee the city with his brother and his brother's family and through his lament over the lack of proper burial rites for the dead being deposited into mass graves. Yet there are broader religious issues at work in the narrative. Throughout the novel, the narrator H. F. questions whether or not the plague should be viewed as God's judgment on or punishment of the people of London. As the novel progresses, H. F. criticizes individuals who, consoled by their belief in the idea that it is God's will rather than their own actions that will determine whether or not they become infected, parade freely around the city, regardless of their risk of contamination. If they had fled from danger, the narrator points out, they might have been able to safeguard themselves. However, despite his criticism of these individuals, the narrator uses the same logic when determining his own course of action. He argues with his brother on this very point, asserting that he would put his trust in God to protect his health and personal safety but that he feared the loss of his business and possessions. His brother tries to persuade him with the argument that it is "as reasonable that you should trust God with the chance or risk of losing your trade" as it is to presume to "trust Him with your life." However, H. F. reports that every time he resolved to go, some sort of "accident or other" would prevent it, and he begins to read such events as divine signs that he should remain in London; if he remains there, he believes, God will be "able to effectually preserve [him] in the midst of all the death and danger that would surround [him]."

    The narrator also brings up the politics of the Church of England and its rift with the group known as the Dissenters. After describing the split between the two parties, H. F. observes that people of both factions came together in the otherwise deserted churches to worship together, regardless of their differences. Such observations highlight Defoe's emphasis on the ability of spirituality to unify and his disapproval of the way the religious regulations of the Church were used divisively. Although he refuses to belabor the point, H. F. does express his wish for a greater understanding between the two groups, while acknowledging that the setting aside of differences that occurred during the plague would not last once the epidemic had passed.

    In the end, the narrator seems to come to the conclusion that the plague has both divine and natural causes and implications. As God has created nature and willed it to operate in a certain matter, H. F. explains, the plague may be viewed as having been ordained by God but "propagated by natural means." God's mercy or judgment, then, is carried out through such natural causes as the plague. On the last page of the novel, H. F. compares London during and at the end of the plague with "the children of Israel after being delivered from the host of the Pharaoh" and the way "they sang His praise, but soon forgot His works." Through this reference to the Old Testament story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, the narrator expresses his belief that while the survivors of the plague may have believed that they had escaped God's judgment, they would nevertheless forget their risk of being judged and punished and would subsequently return to their former ways and "all manner of wickedness."


    Social Politics of the Plague

    Defoe's novel deviates from the historical sources about the plague in its emphasis on the plight of the poor and in its suggestion that the plague completely disrupted the lives of the entire population of London. Many critics have pointed out that for many citizens of London, life went on somewhat as usual and that the plague was confined largely to the extremely poor and overcrowded parishes of London. For those parishes, though, the plague was indeed an all-consuming problem, and Defoe is concerned with depicting the details of the daily challenges of poor individuals. He deals in particular with their economic existence, pointing out that in order to avoid death by starvation, many poor people had to face the risk of death from the plague. In order to provide for their families, they often took the worst jobs, such as retrieving the bodies of people who had died from the plague from their homes and burying them. The narrator also observes that many laborers were forced into poverty by the lack of work that resulted from the spread of the plague.

    The efforts of local officials (the Lord Mayor, the sheriffs, the magistrates, and others) to avoid a city-wide famine, to contain the spread of the plague, and to "prevent the mob doing any mischief" are also subjects of the narrator's observations and often, but not always, objects of his praise. In particular, the narrator applauds the city's efforts to distribute food to the poor and to keep the city streets cleared of the bodies of individuals who have died from the plague. However, H. F. is critical about the city's policy of quarantining infected or possibly infected individuals and their families in their homes. Such a practice necessitates the use of a watchman to guard the homes and often leads to the panicked and desperate (and sometimes violent) escape of infected individuals, and consequently, to the further spread of the plague. Many times, because entire families are confined to the house, healthy people are needlessly infected. The narrator highlights the difficulty of assessing the need for confinement and enforcing that confinement. The narrator also observes that often the plague is spread by individuals who do not even know they are infected, and so would not have been shut up in their homes in any case. While acknowledging that in some instances the policy may have kept some infected individuals from running deliriously through the streets, the narrator sums up his opinion when he states that the policy of such confinement "seemed to have no manner of public good in it."

  • Journal of a Plague Year: Critical Analysis

    Taken from: "A Journal of the Plague Year." Novels for Students, edited by Sara Constantakis, vol. 30, Gale, 2010, pp. 187-205.

    When A Journal of the Plague Year was published in 1722, it was viewed in its relation to the recent outbreak of the plague in France, and was commonly held to be a political statement regarding Defoe's opposition to the possible quarantining of London. Paula R. Backsheider in her 1989 biography Daniel Defoe: His Life states that in A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe "turned observations about the 1665 plague into a comprehensive plan for lessening the spread and suffering of future plagues." At the same time, its accuracy as a historical document was also accepted by many of the work's contemporary readers, as observed by J. R. Hammond in A Defoe Companion (1993), who states that because of Defoe's skill as a journalist, "many contemporary readers accepted the Journal at face value as an eyewitness account written at the time of the Great Plague." Hammond goes on to point out that many modern readers as well could easily make the same mistake because Defoe is an expert "literary counterfeiter." This observation highlights one of the central critical debates regarding Defoe's novel. The work's status as historical fiction is generally agreed upon, but some critics focus on its historical accuracy, Defoe's use of historical sources, and the way the work compares to other contemporary accounts of the plague, whereas other critics debate the work's success as a novel.

    In Maximillian E. Novak's 1983 study of Defoe's fiction (Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe's Fiction), Novak concedes that while it is a somewhat "radical" notion, Defoe's novel may be seen as "history or historical fiction about 1665" as well as "government propaganda directed at England in 1722." Regardless of which stance is taken, Novak emphasizes the importance of ascertaining the work's historical accuracy by comparing A Journal of the Plague Year to other contemporary sources, such as the Diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). His conclusion is that while Defoe fails to accurately present an overview of the plague's impact on the nation and on all social classes, Defoe avails himself of the medical details found in contemporary sources and offers a snapshot of the poor of London during the plague year. Backsheider similarly observes this discrepancy between Defoe's work and that of Pepys, and she adds to the list of sources whose facts present a picture different from Defoe's the work of John Dryden (1631-1700) and information found in the London Gazette. However, Backsheider praises Defoe's interest in and ability to relate "an alternate history," that is, his accounts and praise of the actions of the Dissenters, his reports of the quarantining policies implemented during the plague, and his criticism of those policies. Furthermore, Backsheider comments on Defoe's skills as a novelist, noting his achievement in constructing a novel "full of beautiful rhythms."

    While Backsheider and Novak both note the ways in which Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year differs from its historical sources, Everett Zimmerman, in the 1975 work Defoe and the Novel, contends that the work "follows historical sources almost scrupulously." Zimmerman then goes on to extol Defoe's use of the narrator H. F., maintaining that it is the narrator's personal spiritual experience that forms the central crisis of the book. The narrator seeks a guiding spiritual overlay in his attempt to comprehend the horrific epidemic he is witness to, yet his observation of the reality before him is such that "he cannot fully reconcile it with his religious assumptions." This discrepancy creates in the narrator a growing sense of conflict and anxiety, Zimmerman explains. Zimmerman stresses the significance of the narrator and his psychological tension to the work's being regarded as fiction. Other critics, however, find that as a character, the narrator tends to fade into the background of the events he is observing. Novak, for example, offers the view that London is the main focus of the work and that Defoe is most concerned not with H. F.'s having survived the plague or endured a crisis of faith but with the survival of the city and "the core of her people—the poor who remained." 


    Catherine Dominic

    Dominic is a novelist and a freelance writer and editor. In this essay, she explores the structure and relevance of the extended anecdote of the baker, the joiner, and the sail maker, found in the middle section of A Journal of the Plague Year, and its relation to the novel as a whole.

    Midway through A Journal of the Plague Year, the narrator introduces a story of three men, a story whose significance is underscored by the narrator's comment that the account to follow "has a moral in every part of it" and that the conduct of the men and the other individuals with whom they join forces "is a pattern for all poor men to follow, or women either, if ever such a time comes again; and if there was no other end in recording it, I think this is a very just one, whether my account be exactly according to fact or no." As readers, we are given some very important instruction as to how the upcoming tale should be interpreted. We are told it will have a message of special significance, that it is designed to instruct individuals regarding the proper course of action in the event of future epidemics, and that it may not be historically accurate. Such an introduction sets the story apart from other, shorter anecdotes in the novel. With the other incidents and stories the narrator relates, there is no disclaimer regarding accuracy or preface underscoring the particular importance the reader should grasp. Structurally, the story of the three men differs from the other anecdotes in the work as well. The narrator does relate a few exchanges that feature dialogue, typically between himself and another individual, but such conversations are quite brief. Only in the story of the three men does the narrator tell the tale of several individuals, identified by name, with whom he himself does not converse, who share extended dialogue, and whose story consists of more than one scene or incident. The tale of the three men, then, is a story within a story, but it is seldom reviewed as such or at length by critics. The significance of this section of Defoe's novel may best be understood by examining the actions of the group as a whole and of John in particular. An analysis of the tale of the three men reveals a moral and message, the presence of which is flagged by the narrator, of personal responsibility for one's salvation. This relates directly to the narrator's (and Defoe's) views on personal conduct during the plague and also to Defoe's own religious views as a Dissenter. (The term "Dissenter" is used to describe various Protestant denominations that refused to accept basic principles of the Church of England as it existed in the mid-seventeenth century. Dissenters were often persecuted for their beliefs.)

    The story of the three men serves a number of purposes in the novel and is viewed in a variety of ways by various critics. J. R. Hammond (in his 1993 study of Defoe's work A Defoe Companion) regards it within the context of Defoe's interest in survival narratives and likens it to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in its focus on the use of "reason to overcome difficulties and escape from calamity." Maximillian E. Novak, in Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe's Fiction (1983) regards the excerpt in its political capacity, arguing that Defoe, as a "loyal Londoner" was not prepared "to see his city cut off from the rest of the country and left to die" and included the story as an objection to quarantine policies. Everett Zimmerman likens the adventures of the three men to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, finding that the story functions as a parable of "mankind seeking salvation" and that it emphasizes the "personal effort that, in addition to reliance on God, is necessary for salvation." All three critics touch on the meaning and appeal of this portion of Defoe's narrative, but none explore the unique qualities of this section of the novel and the way such qualities highlight the broader significance of the story.

    In addition to the way the narrator prefaces the story of the men, as discussed above, this section of the story stands out immediately because of its structural differences from the rest of the book. As readers we are treated, with the appearance of John and his brother Thomas, to our first lengthy section of dialogue. Previous anecdotes included brief exchanges with the narrator and someone whom he encountered, or with people who related their own tales, but in this section of the novel, speaker names preface lines of speech, as in a play. Visually, the ongoing, previously unbroken narrative is set off on the page in a manner that unmistakably tells the reader the next portion of the novel is different from all that preceded it. The characters speak at length to one another, not to the narrator. Two brothers are introduced to us, John, who is a former soldier and now a biscuit maker, or baker, and Thomas, a former sailor turned sail maker. The men discuss their present circumstances, the danger the plague poses for them, and the fact that they are both soon to be turned out of their lodgings. As they question the wisdom of leaving London, John asserts his right to travel the roads out of town, despite the reports of officials turning people back to their own parishes to prevent contamination. Thomas feels that as they have no friends or relatives to whom they could travel and with whom to stay, they are obliged to remain in London, where he acknowledges they will likely die. John vigorously disagrees, arguing that all of England is his birthright, not just the city in which he was born. As John counters all of his brother's arguments, it is plain that his instinct toward self-preservation is strong. Thomas presses him about where they would go if they left. "Anywhere," John replies, "to save our lives."

    They make no preparations to leave, however, until two weeks later, when the situation in London has become more dire. A third man, a friend of Thomas named Richard, joins them just before departure. Defoe details their life on the road, explaining the shelter they make for themselves, and how they make decisions and keep watch. Through such details, Defoe calls to mind the tale of survival he had already published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe. Not only do such passages evoke Defoe's earlier novel, but they also serve to stress the difference between this section of A Journal of the Plague Year and the rest of the novel. These details of the men's survival, and other, similar details still to come, heighten the story's realism and increase the tension felt by the reader. We are placed, in a sense, on the road with three characters who are more well developed than those met in passing in the novel's other anecdotes. As John, Thomas, and Richard venture from London and encounter another band of people escaping the plague, they begin to lose their status as strangers to the reader, unlike their often unnamed counterparts in the shorter anecdotes of the novel.

    Throughout the trio's travels, John increasingly stands out as the group's leader. His continued resourcefulness, demonstrated in the way he outwits the constable of the town of Walthamstow, aids him in preserving his own life, as well as the lives of all the members of the group. John secures safe passage, permission to set up camp outside town, and provisions for the company. When the plague ventures near, John leads the group to safety once again. He periodically makes reference to God's will, but his actions indicate his own unwillingness to be solely guided and protected by such a force. His sense of personal responsibility for the preservation of his own life is the force that leads him out of London and that protects him during the remainder of the plague year, not his faith in God's desire or ability to preserve him. At the end of the tale, Defoe points out that none of the group became infected and that they were all able to return to London in December.

    Defoe's emphasis on personal responsibility like that exhibited by John and the others is reflected in other parts of the work but is nowhere so fully developed as in John's story. The narrator reiterates toward the end of the novel that "the best physic [medicine] against the plague is to run away from it." Admitting that his own decisions ran counter to this advice, the narrator criticizes those individuals who believed that God would preserve them and who subsequently took no action to preserve themselves. Furthermore, the narrator throughout the novel comments on the policy of forced quarantining of infected individuals and their families in their homes, conceding that while sometimes this may have prevented loss of life, the policy ultimately did not benefit the population of London. What he seems to be suggesting as an alternative to forced quarantining is the notion of personal responsibility: the healthy should leave the city or remain in a home fortified for a lengthy stay, and the infected should sequester themselves voluntarily in the interest of sparing others from contamination. For example, the narrator admiringly describes the man who, suspecting himself contaminated, quarantines himself in one of the outbuildings on his property and "would not suffer his wife, nor children, nor servants to come up into the room, lest they should be infected." He died in that building but avoided being shut up in his house with his family members, whom he would have undoubtedly infected.

    That A Journal of the Plague Year advocates a sense of personal responsibility for both saving one's own life and protecting the lives of others is evidenced by the many anecdotes in the novel that deal with this theme, but it is dramatically enacted in the story of John and his company. Arguably, Defoe's political stance against the quarantining of London is supported through the story of John and through other anecdotes in A Journal of the Plague Year. Yet the religious views for which Defoe was persecuted throughout his life are also reflected in the novel's theme of personal responsibility. The role of personal responsibility for one's spiritual salvation played a central role in the religious philosophy of the Dissenters. The dictates of one's individual conscience superseded the dictates of the Church of England for this group. Defoe's tale of the three men and its theme of personal responsibility is infused with social, political, and religious meaning, and its significance is highlighted by Defoe through the narrator's preface to it and through its unique structure within the larger framework of the novel. (Source: Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on A Journal of the Plague Year, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010).


    Jeanne Guillemin

    In the following review, Guillemin discusses how Defoe's account of the plague is not a deception, but rather a "brilliant reconstruction of the terrible impact of a real epidemic on ordinary urban people."

    About 25 years ago, I picked up the 1948 Modern Library edition of Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. In his introduction, Louis Kronenberger described Defoe's account of the ravaging of London in 1664-65 as a literary "trick" and "the greatest fake document of its length in all literature." I thought otherwise. Rather than a deception, I saw a brilliant reconstruction of the terrible impact of a real epidemic on ordinary urban people, and on an insular country struggling with its relations to the outside world. For it was trade with that outside world that had contaminated London, through rats infected by lice—and throughout Defoe's account, although he was ignorant of the cause of the epidemic, trade is paramount.

    To construct his narrative, published in 1722, Defoe used stories from his childhood and documents to tell a story of civic chaos and eventual survival. His account is both objective in its reporting of statistics and humane in its intent. "If I could but tell this part," he wrote of how people suffered, "in such moving accents as should alarm the very soul of the reader, I should rejoice that I recorded those things, however short and imperfect."

    In 1992 I had the opportunity to investigate the largest outbreak of inhalational anthrax in recorded history, which occurred in 1979 in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk. Through interviews with the families of the 68 people who died, I discovered that the cause of these deaths was an accidental release of spores from a nearby military facility. Anthrax is not contagious person to person, and the 1979 outbreak was small by comparison with anything recorded by Defoe. Yet I found myself, like Defoe, reconstructing an event that had taken place years before, and empathizing, as I am sure he did, with the complex civic response. The objective facts were there—on paper and on gravestones—and so were the tragic human accounts of sudden deaths that shocked and frightened the community. The great difference, of course, was that impersonal nature and ignorance had caused the plague of Defoe's journal, while a military-weapons program bent on attacking enemy civilians had caused the Sverdlovsk outbreak. The Soviets, of course, were not alone in this exploitation of microbiology. France, Japan, the United States, and Britain had preceded them with aggressive programs aimed at mass destruction.

    Despite the end of such major programs, scenarios of indiscriminate lethal pandemics continue to preoccupy us centuries after Defoe's writing. Today the United States and other nations are concerned with the threat of bioterrorism. Meanwhile, terrible pandemics such as AIDS, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and malaria kill and debilitate millions each year in nonindustrialized parts of the globe that have as yet no Daniel Defoe to chronicle the chronic violence that these diseases exert on those ordinary lives—lives which, entirely contrary to logic and ethics, remain less valued than those in Western countries. (Source: Jeanne Guillemin, "An Account of the Plague," in Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 51, No. 23, February 11, 2005).

How did early newspapers cover the spread of the plague?

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John Dunstall’s 1666 Broadsheet of
Nine Scenes Relating to the 1665 Plague

John Dunstall’s 1666 Broadsheet of Nine Scenes Relating to the 1665 Plague (Museum of London)


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