In 1665, the Great Plague swept through London, claiming nearly 100,000 lives. In A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe vividly chronicles the progress of the epidemic. We follow his fictional narrator through a city transformed-the streets and alleyways deserted, the houses of death with crosses daubed on their doors, the dead-carts on their way to the pits-and encounter the horrified citizens of the city, as fear, isolation, and hysteria take hold. The shocking immediacy of Defoe's description of plague-racked London makes this one of the most convincing accounts of the Great Plague ever written.
Shoshana, April 24, 2009 (view all comments by Shoshana)
Defoe was a young child in 1665. What's best about A Journal of the Plague Year is the lengths to which Defoe goes to cause the reader to believe that this is in fact a journal and not a novel. His narrator repeatedly reports sets of death statistics, analyzing them for evidence that cases of the plague are being hidden. He scrupulously avows that parts of the narrative are true and supports them with references and citations; other parts are equally scrupulously identified as unsubstantiated or hearsay. The narrator admits that he is not publishing his religious reflections on the plague as these would be of no interest to the reader. The style is discursive and matter of fact. The overall effect is of reportage, not fiction.
The reader may indeed breath a sigh of relief that the narrator keeps his theological musings from these pages, heavily interlarded as they already are with Defoe's usual moral philosophizing. Though not out of place for the time or the content of the novel, it is still wearing. This edition has an introduction by Anthony Burgess that puts these sermons into context and renders them tolerable.
As a bubonic plague aficionado, I appreciated Defoe's detailed descriptions of the signs of the plague and the practices associated with the government's efforts to contain it. Defoe makes a number of excellent observations about the futility and damaging effects of quarantine, and though the plague and HIV spread differently, the attribution of divine and social meanings to a disease resonate even today.
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