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Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Debbie Notari
The bubonic plague that struck Europe in 1665 in London is no doubt one of history's worst tragedies. Daniel Defoe, the author of 'Robinson Crusoe,' wrote a first-person account of this time, including so much detail that the book seems like fact.

The Black Death in London

The bubonic plague savagely swept through Europe in the 1300s, but returned again in the mid-1600s. It was truly a horrifying disease. It first returned to Holland, and Charles II would not allow any trading with the Dutch. The plague was passed on by fleas which were usually carried by rats. If you have had any unpleasant experiences with rats, you know they can fit into almost any space. It would have been impossible to keep them from crossing from Holland to England on ships.

Even so, the plague found a way in December of 1664. Daniel Defoe begins his book A Journal of the Plague Year with these words, thus giving his account a credible tone:

being observations or memorials
of the most remarkable occurrences,
as well public as private, which happened in
London during the last great visitation in 1665.
Written by a Citizen who continued
all the while in London.
Never made public before

First Page of Journal of a Plague Year

Defoe: Author or Editor?

There is some controversy as to how much of the book Defoe created or actually edited from the journals of a man known as H.F. We do know that H.F. wrote his original journal as a guide to making tough decisions in difficult circumstances. In addition, Defoe was only five years old in 1665. Defoe wrote in the first person, and we see that the end of the account is signed 'H.F.' It would appear that Defoe edited a previously-written manuscript.

Indeed, when it was discovered that Defoe was the author (he was infamous for his use of pen names), there was a great controversy over whether Defoe should be called the author or simply the editor. Historians feel the events portrayed are accurate for the most part, and Defoe obviously made great efforts to inject verisimilitude, or the resemblance to truth, in his narrative. But if Defoe had not spoken for H.F., we might not know as much about the plague as we do today.

Better, then Worse

By the time May of 1665 rolled around, the plague seemed to have nearly died out, but just as people's hopes were rising, the dreaded disease steadily increased, killing more and more each week, especially as the weather grew warmer. H.F. observes many people leaving town, with horses and carts 'all hurrying away.' In order to leave, people had to get a good bill of health and special passes, so you can imagine the crowds trying to obtain the paperwork they needed.

H.F.'s Internal Struggle

The protagonist, H.F., really wrestled with the decision as to whether or not he should flee London like many of his neighbors and friends, or stay and maintain his shop. H.F. was a 'saddler,' and knew he would lose his business altogether if he left. He was single, but he had employees and servants to think of, as well. His brother, who also lived in London at the time, gave H.F. three words of advice: 'Master, save thyself!' His brother definitely planned to leave London for the country as soon as possible. H.F. did decide to go, but things did not go as planned.

For Want of a Horse

There were very few horses left in London, with so many people leaving. This posed a problem for H.F. However, he decided to take a trusted servant with him and go by foot. He figured that they could camp out in the fields until they reached his sister's home in Lincolnshire. However, the servant panicked and fled before H.F. was ready to leave. H.F. had a strong faith in God, and began to wonder if God was allowing setbacks, such as his servant fleeing, to show him that it was His will that H.F. remain in London. H.F. believed that if it was God's will for him to stay, God would protect him from the plague. H.F. writes, 'it occurred to me that if I had what I might call a direction to stay, I ought to suppose it contained a promise of being preserved if I obeyed.'

H.F. Stays

H.F. decided to stay, although his brother thought him foolish. To solidify his decision, H.F. sought direction from the Bible, and he asked God to 'direct' him. He opened the Bible to Psalm 91, which states in part: 'I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God, in Him will I trust. Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.... there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.' What a very specific answer to H.F.'s prayer. He believed God would, indeed, protect him. This supports H.F.'s wish to guide his readers in their decision-making processes.

What Followed

About this time, H.F. got what seems to be the flu. He kept it on the 'down low' because if anyone complained of being sick, people assumed it was the plague. After a few days, he recovered. During the following weeks, hundreds, if not thousands, of people died from the plague in various parts of the city. Many were buried in mass graves. H.F. watched over his brother's home to make sure it was not looted in all of the chaos. He also remarked that the population in London was noticeably less! H.F. observed that 'sorrow and sadness sat upon every face.' So much crying and mourning could be heard from street to street.

Further Observations

H.F. tells horrifying stories of people who were imprisoned in their own homes because someone in their household had contracted the plague, and more often than not, the plague came to households through their servants. The house would be locked from the outside, and a red cross would be painted on the door. This very action could condemn some people to death as they were trapped with others who had the virus. A watchman would then be placed in front of the house. Even so, some people managed to escape through various doors in the homes, or mobs would sometimes attack the watchman and help them escape. Others escaped by giving the watchman a bribe. It was a nasty business, and horrible for all involved! H.F. further observes that the plague brought out the good or evil in people, as they were so inclined.

The narrative ends abruptly, and H.F. refuses to analyze the lack of humanity he saw around him:
I can go no farther here. I should be counted censorious, and perhaps unjust, if I should enter into the unpleasing work of reflecting, whatever cause there was for it, upon the unthankfulness and return of all manner of wickedness among us, which I was so much an eye-witness of myself.

Analysis

In this section, we will take a look at Defoe's writing style. As mentioned previously, Defoe wrote the book in the first person. This gave his work a more credible feel. As a literary device, he gave strong evidences to back up his work, giving it a journalistic feel.

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