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A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year

A metropolis is suddenly struck with a devastating pandemic. Those who can afford to leave flee, while the poor and public servants are trapped inside of an increasingly desolate and dangerous city. By day, moans and screams can be heard through apartment windows while scattered individuals walk in the middle of nearly deserted streets, keeping as much distance from each other as possible. By night, the dead-carts make their rounds, collecting more bodies than they can count and dumping them into mass graves.

Daniel Defoe's (1660-1731) A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) gives a first-personal narrative of The Great Plague of London, which killed approximately 97,000 people in the year 1665. Part historical novel, part warning, and part advice manual, this book, based on both Defoe's personal childhood experience as well as historical research, gives a fascinating account of the day-to-day details of life in a plague-afflicted city.1

A Journal of the Plague Year Background

The plague was a pandemic that affected Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East from the Middle Ages until the early 18th century. It is principally known for the massive outbreak that occurred between 1346-53 which killed perhaps as much as half of the population in these regions. The plague had cyclical outbreaks–sometimes as frequently as every 20 years–until around 1690.2

A Journal of the Plague Year Dance of Death Dans Macabre StudySmarterThe "Danse Macabre" or Dance of Death was a popular personification of the plague. Pixabay.

While there is disagreement about what the exact cause of The Plague was, most scholars agree that it was either the bubonic plague or a combination of this and a variety of other diseases. These were all likely carried by fleas infesting rats on cargo ships originating from the Black Sea.

The author of A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe, was born in London in 1660 and lived there as a young child when The Great Plague of 1665 hit. When a plague broke out in Marseille, France, in 1720, Europeans braced themselves for the possibility of a new pandemic. Defoe, perhaps using his childhood memories as a starting point but also consulting historical sources, decided to write a tract detailing life during the plague of London in 1665.4

A Journal of the Plague Year Characters

A Journal of the Plague Year has one central character, who is also the narrator, and a number of peripheral characters who he either interacts with or whose stories he retells.

H.F.

The narrator, identified only by these two initials at the end of the book, is a successful saddler who resides in London and does most of his business trading with the American colonies. He is calm and rational, though he needlessly stays in London and often risks catching the plague purely out of boredom or curiosity. He is compassionate, at several points helping and commiserating with plague victims. He is also a devout Christian, believing that the plague is God’s hand. He survives the plague but dies before the book's publication, as the reader is told by a note towards the end of the book.

Defoe's uncle, Henry Foe, may have served as the model for H.F. He would have been around 37 years old at the time of the Great Plague and may possibly have been in London at the time. Other details seem to corroborate this theory: Henry Foe and his sister were buried in Moorfields, and a note in A Journal of the Plague Year informs us that H.F. and his sister were as well; H.F. also mentions being from Northamptonshire, which is where the Foe family also originated. H.F. and Foe were also both saddlers from the Whitechapel district of London.

H.F.’s Older Brother

Also a prosperous merchant with international connections, H.F.’s brother decides to retreat to the countryside with his family to wait out the plague. He urges his brother to do so as well, but to no avail. He frequently corresponds by letter to his brother, who also looks after his warehouse.

The "Unhappy Gentleman"

After losing his wife and children to the plague, this nameless character faints after witnessing them being dumped in a mass, unmarked grave.

The Pie Tavern Gang

A gang of drunkards who assemble regularly at the Pie Tavern despite laws against gathering, they engage in “atheistical profane mirth,” often harassing plague victims and other customers.

The Waterman

A man who H.F. observes while walking along the docks whose wife and surviving child are quarantined with the plague. He makes his money mostly by delivering food and other necessities to people who are waiting out the plague in ships moored in the Thames.

John, Thomas, and Richard

While H.F. never meets these people, their story takes up a substantial part of the book. These three laborers and artisans, short of work because of the plague and worried about getting infected, decide to pool their resources and travel out into the countryside.

A Journal of the Plague Year Summary

Beginning with the news of two plague deaths in London in December 1664, the narrator uses statistical tables to show how the deaths in certain neighborhoods increased steadily in January and February. Certain that the plague was upon them, many of London’s wealthy abandoned the city for their country retreats, where they would wait it out in relative safety. H.F.’s brother is among them, and H.F. seriously considers leaving the city himself. Ultimately his business concerns, but more importantly his curiosity and hunch that the plague is a test from God, lead him to stay in the city.

After a lull in the spring, the plague increases in intensity and spreads as the summer approaches. The city becomes increasingly desolate as infections soar and people avoid public activity. The people left in the city are visibly worried, and there seems to be a rise in strange behavior and crime. The narrator finds that his brother's warehouse has been broken into and that a crowd of women, mostly well-to-do neighbors, had come and looted several boxes of hats. When he confronts them, they say that they simply assumed the owner had died and that the hats would go to waste. Other crimes are more vicious, as when the narrator recounts a plague-infected man who drags a woman to the ground and forcibly kisses her.

The 1665 plague was preceded by a bright comet in the sky, which helped give rise to a widespread belief that the plague was a judgment from God. The narrator notes an enormous increase in church attendance, despite the known danger of infection from large crowds of people. He also notes with disapproval a proliferation of would-be prophets in the street, loudly preaching that God’s judgment was at hand, such as the famous Solomon Eagle who walked the streets naked shouting “repent!” Along with this, a number of “charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets” peddled by quack doctors became widespread.

The narrator quotes at length the government measures taken to try to contain the plague. These included appointing citizens as examiners and searchers whose job it was to discover which people from which households had contracted the plague and whether they were living or dead. Plague victims would be either voluntarily removed to a pest house, where they would be looked after for a fee, or forcibly shut up in their own houses.

All household members, sick or healthy, had to stay in the house for a month if anyone came down with the plague. The door would be marked with a red cross and the words “the lord have mercy on us”. A watchman was appointed to make sure the house was supplied with food and necessities and that no one escaped. Doctors, nurses, and surgeons were also appointed to visit and help the sick. Houses and carriages were to be well ventilated, and large gatherings of people at pubs, theaters, and feasts were forbidden.

A Journal of the Plague Year The Dead Cart Engraving StudySmarterA 19th-century engraving of the dead carts used in the 1665 plague. Wikimedia Commons.

In July, the plague gets so bad that the narrator witnesses people drop dead in the street, hears them moaning inside their houses, and occasionally sees them going crazy from the pain of the infection, in some cases running naked around the street and jumping into the river. “Dead-carts” begin to visit the neighborhood to cart away the large number of deceased and bury them in unmarked pits by night. Offering some comic relief, the narrator tells us the story of a sleeping homeless piper who was accidentally loaded onto a dead cart and only woke up just before he was to be thrown into the grave.

Out of curiosity, the narrator visits a graveyard one evening to witness a mass burial. He sees an unhappy gentleman who faints after seeing his wife and children dumped into an unmarked grave. The man is taken to the Pie Tavern, where he is known. The narrator later visits to check up on him, only to discover a gang of raucous drunkards who are mocking him and other plague victims. He tries to reason with them, but this only angers them further. Later, he learns that they have all died of the plague and were themselves deposited into the unmarked grave.

After this, the narrator decides to try to stock up on provisions and stay sequestered in his house, but after about two weeks he can no longer stand staying inside. He heads down to the river to see how the docks and ships are managing. The area seems to be as deserted as the rest of the city, but he does see a lone man working on a boat. He learns that there are hundreds of people moored offshore, waiting for the plague to die down. This man makes his living by delivering necessities to them.

To illustrate the plight of working people during the plague, who were both unable to leave the city and were often out of work due to reduced demand for servants and workers, the narrator recounts the story of John the biscuit maker, Tom the sailmaker, and Richard the joiner. These three working-class men decide to quit the city along with a tent and as many provisions as they can buy. They camp out in the forest and try to stay away from towns and crowds, but they eventually meet a group of like-minded people fleeing the city. They join together and live peacefully, sometimes clashing with local villagers who fear them while also inspiring their pity and sympathy. They stay this way through the summer and fall, after which the weather gets too cold and they’re forced to return to London.

A Journal of the Plague Year Epping Forest StudySmarterJohn, Tom, and Richard spend several weeks in Epping Forest outside of London. Wikimedia Commons.

The narrator is now appointed as an examiner, meaning it is his job to determine when anyone in his neighborhood gets infected and to send orders for them to be quarantined in their houses. He is against the practice of locking people up in their houses, thinking it terrible to force the healthy members of the household to stay in with the sick. He notes that people practiced all kinds of deception to avoid being locked in, sometimes even attacking and murdering the watchmen who were guarding them. They then unknowingly spread the infection as they fled to other parts of the city or country. He is given a reduced term as examiner because of this conscientious objection.

After September, the plague starts to become less deadly. The narrator notes that many people rushed back to town and abandoned all the precautions that they had been taking against infection. This results in a much higher infection rate, though mortality is still declining. Eventually, the disease peters out and life returns more or less to normal by the following winter.

A Journal of the Plague Year Analysis

Daniel Defoe is often credited as the first English novelist. The book is not obviously fictional, presenting itself as the distillation of memories and observations noted in a daily journal by a real person during the plague. It was indeed based on Defoe's own experience and meticulous research, but its focus on the limited perspective of its fictional narrator and its penchant for finding anecdotes and vignettes that in turn amuse, horrify, and pique the interest of the reader make it a work more of literature than of history.5

While Defoe surely intended this book to be entertaining, he also had a practical purpose in writing it. Foremost, concern about the possible renewal of the plague as it spread through France in 1720 meant that difficult decisions about how to manage the plague would need to be made. Defoe underscores the difficulties faced by the poor and the necessity of charitable donations and measures to increase public hygiene and decrease crowding. He was particularly concerned with stopping the practice of quarantining the healthy along with the sick members of a household, which he was convinced was both cruel and ineffective.

A Journal of the Plague Year Title Page 1767 StudySmarterA 1767 edition of the book details some of Defoe's motivations for writing. Library of Congress.

Defoe, a devout Christian, was also keen to demonstrate the role that God plays in the world. Likely agreeing with H.F. that the plague is God’s judgment but that it is also incumbent on us all to act prudently, he sees the plague as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of genuine, deep religious belief in a time of crisis.

A Journal of the Plague Year Quotes

H.F. on justifying his decision to stay in the city of London and explaining his views on divine intervention:

I looked upon this dismal time to be a particular season of Divine vengeance, and that God would on this occasion single out the proper objects of His displeasure in a more especial and remarkable manner than at another time.

Describing the strange behavior that sometimes accompanied plague victims in the throes of the disease:

People in the rage of the distemper, or in the torment of their swellings, which was indeed intolerable, running out of their government, raving and distracted, and oftentimes laying violent hands upon themselves, throwing themselves out of their windows, shooting themselves, &c mothers murdering their children in their lunacy, some dying of mere grief as a passion, some of mere fright and surprise without any infection at all, others frighted into idiotism and foolish distractions, some into despair and lunacy, others into melancholy madness.

H.F.'s description of the city streets at the height of the plague:

“...whole streets seemed to be desolated, and not to be shut up only, but emptied of their inhabitants; doors were left open, Windows stood shattering with the wind in empty houses [...] the great Streets…had grass growing in them.”

H.F.'s observation that the plague brought religious tolerance, with people of different denominations worshiping and cooperating together:

Another plague year would reconcile all these differences; a close conversing with death, or with diseases that threaten death, would scum off the gall from our tempers, remove the animosities among us, and bring us to see with differing eyes those which we looked on things with before.

A Journal of the Plague Year - Key takeaways

  • Published by Daniel Defoe in 1722, A Journal of the Plague Year is a fictional, first-hand account of life in London during the plague of 1665.
  • The book's narrator, identified only as H.F., is a businessman who decides to stay in London during the plague rather than flee to the countryside with his brother.
  • H.F. gives a series of fascinating anecdotes and vignettes that demonstrate how both the plague and the measures taken to prevent its spread affected the people of London.
  • Daniel Defoe started writing A Journal of the Plague Year to help Londoners prepare themselves for a possible outbreak after the plague broke out in southern France in 1720, cautioning against quarantining healthy people with their sick family members and urging the necessity of public hygiene and charity for the poor.
  • A Journal of the Plague Year also has a strong religious message, insisting that the plague is a sign of God's judgment.

References

1. Richetti, J. (editor). The Cambridge Companion to Daniel Defoe. Cambridge UP, 2009

2. Benedictow, O. The Complete History of the Black Death. Boydell & Brewer, 2021.

3. Byrne, J. The Black Death. Greenwood Press, 2004.

4. Defoe, D. and Anthony Burgess (editor). A Journal of the Plague Year. Penguin Books, 1986.

5. Richetti, J. (editor). The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century Novel. Cambridge UP, 1998.

Frequently Asked Questions about A Journal of the Plague Year

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) wrote A Journal of the Plague Year.

A Journal of the Plague Year shows how people behave in a crisis and suggests the necessity of charity and tolerance.

Defoe mentions "tokens" of the plague, which are black, gangrenous marks on the face, chest, or hands, as well as swollen glands on the groin and under the arms. Delirium and strange behavior, perhaps as a result of the pain of the swellings, were also noted as symptoms. 

A Journal of the Plague Year is a historical novel/historical fiction.

Defoe describes the plague as an absolutely terrifying and devastating judgment from God that swept away the innocent and the guilty alike. It turned London into a living nightmare in the summer and fall of 1665.

Final A Journal of the Plague Year Quiz

Question

When was A Journal of the Plague Year published?

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Answer

1722

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Who is the author of A Journal of the Plague Year?

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Answer

Daniel Defoe

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Question

A Journal of the Plague Year was written for all of the following reasons EXCEPT

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To suggest potential cures for the plague.

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What genre is A Journal of the Plague Year?

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Answer

Historical fiction

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Question

H.F. interacts with all of the people below EXCEPT

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Richard

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Which of the following best describes the way the book is narrated?

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Answer

The reader's perspective is limited to H.F.'s thoughts and observations.

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What does H.F. think about forcibly quarantining entire families together?

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Answer

It is both cruel and ineffective.

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Question

Approximately how many people died in the Great London Plague of 1665?

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Answer

97,000

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What does H.F. think the 1665 plague demonstrated about religious differences?

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Answer

That people of differing beliefs could come together.

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What can the reader infer from the story of John, Tom, and Richard?

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That the working poor faced grave difficulties during the plague.

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What prompted Defoe to write A Journal of the Plague Year?

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Answer

The outbreak of plague in Marseilles in 1720.

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Question

What do the rich do when the plague breaks out?

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Answer

Flee to the countryside.

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