Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year resonates with our new way of life
The business pages of the newspapers keep telling us that the pandemic has created winners as well as losers. It has in literature. Certain books that perhaps have languished on the shelves for months or years are now being dusted off and perused once more because of the way they resonate with our present way of life.
Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is a book whose stock has surely taken off in recent weeks. It purports to be the memoirs of a saddler, “H.F.”, who resided in London throughout the period of the plague and yet remained healthy. H.F.’s evolving understanding of what the plague is, and the language in which he expresses his grasp of its complicated and ambiguous nature, imparts a dynamic to Defoe’s narrative, as different aspects of the disease successively come to the fore. At the outset the plague is a “Visitation”, implying divine retribution. H.F. is tempted to lay the blame for provoking God’s anger on the excesses of the Court:
. . . the Court removed early, (viz.) in the Month of June, and went to Oxford, where it pleas’d God to preserve them; and the Distemper did not, as I heard of, so much as touch them; for which I cannot say, that I ever saw they shew’d any great Token of Thankfulness, and hardly anything of Reformation, tho’ they did not want being told that their crying Vices might, without Breach of Charity, be said to have gone far, in bringing that terrible Judgment upon the whole Nation.
But if the plague really was a “terrible judgement”, why were those who had committed the “crying Vices” that brought it into existence preserved? When H.F. once more thinks of the plague as God’s instrument of vengeance, it is when he has been insulted by the atheistical revellers at the Pie Tavern:
I made them some Reply, such as I thought proper, but which I found was so far from putting a Checque to their horrid Way of speaking, that it made them rail the more, so that I confess it fill’d me with Horror, and a kind of Rage, andI came away, as I told them, lest the Hand of that Judgment which had visited the whole City should glorify his Vengeance upon them, and all that were near them.
“Filled me with . . . a kind of Rage”: when the plague is represented as a pure punishment in this narrowly instrumental way, it seems to be in response to human, rather than divine, resentments.
Gradually the plague produces some unanticipated consequences. As well as physical death to multitudes, it brings to some a vivifying of the spirit:
Tho’ there might be some stupidity, and dulness of the Mind, and there was so, a great deal; yet, there was a great deal of just Alarm, sounded into the very inmost Soul, if I may so say of others: Many Consciences were awakened; many hard Hearts melted into Tears; many a penitent Confession was made of Crimes long concealed: . . .
Under the impact of the plague London suddenly becomes spiritually legible. The language of the “good, religious, and sensible” sexton who at first dissuades and then encourages H.F. to enter the churchyard makes this explicit:
I told him I had been press’d in my Mind to go [into the churchyard], and that perhaps it might be an Instructing Sight, that might not be without its Uses. Nay, says the good Man, if you will venture upon that Score, ’Name of God go in; for depend upon it, ’twill be a Sermon to you, it may be, the best that ever you heard in your Life. ’Tis a speaking Sight, says he, and has a Voice with it, and a loud one, to call us all to Repentance; and with that he opened the Door and said, Go, if you will.
Under the crushing psychological pressure of the immediacy which the plague bestows upon death, enabling it to cut through all the elaborate “culture of death” by which, in a normal state of civilisation, mortality is accommodated, the plague reveals the underlying spiritual condition of the inhabitants of the city. Christian virtues are released and strengthened in some—for instance, the “charitable, well-minded Christians” who gave “prodigious Sums of Money” for the poor—while in others, such as the impious revellers of the Pie Tavern, it discloses the presence of a shocking spiritual callousness. H.F. increasingly ponders the paradox that, when plague-ridden, London is spiritually healthy. The city has been dichotomised into the hell of the plague-pits and the heaven of enhanced piety that paradoxically flourishes alongside them. It has become a landscape in which moral and spiritual truth have become visible, palpable and, through the persona of H.F., traversable.
As H.F. moves through the narrow London alleys, a transit increasingly suggestive of his resolve to thread his way between the equally unappealing alternatives of seeming “rude and unmannerly on the one Hand, and prophane and impenetrable on the other,” he is appalled by the “Force of [the people’s] imagination” and by the intellectual and emotional waywardness typical of the “People”. H.F. by contrast displays a scrupulousness, a disciplined and controlled scepticism which distances him from popular credulity, and which marks his language with careful disclaimers, such as “I know not”, “I will not be positive”, “I do not grant the fact”. His guarded treatment of the rumours that during the plague nurses murdered their patients shows well the rational suspicion upon which Defoe repeatedly insists in H.F.’s character.
Is our own society not being similarly refracted, even polarised, under the pressure of the pandemic? New virtues are being called into existence, while some old vices are flourishing with fresh vigour. Meanwhile, those who retain some hold on rational scepticism are reduced to the condition of itinerant observers, soberly recording the symptoms of a society tending towards new and strange formations.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.