30 pages 1 hour read

Daniel Defoe

A Journal Of The Plague Year

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1722

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Summary and Study Guide


Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was first published in 1722. The novel is written in the first-person and chronicles the spread of the bubonic plague in London in 1665. While the first-person narration and abundant historical detail result in a text that feels like—and masquerades as—nonfiction, Defoe was only 5 years old at the time of the events, while the narrator is an adult man living on his own in London. Despite the accurate historical detail, the novel is a work of historical fiction, rather than a true memoir.

The narration is roughly chronological, although it loops back and forth between events, and combines the narrator’s own experiences with numerous heard and overheard anecdotes about victims and survivors of the plague. These anecdotes are not necessarily presented as facts but as vignettes that give a sense of the city’s desperation regardless of their veracity. Most of these anecdotes are less than a paragraph long, although a few span pages.

The narrator begins by describing the initial outbreak of the plague: as newspapers had not yet begun to circulate in London, news of the plague spread via gossip. There was a rumor of the plague in the Netherlands, and in late 1664, a reported death in London. However, in the early months of 1665, there were only a few officially reported plague deaths in the weekly Bills of Death. The narrator—and all Londoners—looked to these bills and tried to interpret them to foretell the spread of the plague.

The narrator suggests that the initially slow spread of the plague according to the Bills of Death was, in fact, a result of attempts to cover it up, both by families who didn’t want their houses shut up by, as well as by government officials who wanted to prevent public panic. However, he relays that as the death toll by the plague and other plague-adjacent illnesses increased throughout the spring, Londoners began to fear for their lives, and those who could afford to flee the city—the narrator excluded—did so. Convinced that God willed him to stay and would protect him, he decided to remain.

Although London was at its highest population ever before the plague, the city emptied considerably by early August. The narrator provides his eyewitness account of London, as well as relays the gossip he has heard while walking to and from his brother’s house and getting provisions. He remarks that Astrologers, Oracles, and other “Quacks” (30) preyed on the poor, suggesting erroneous cures as well as spreading panic. As houses were shut up, he began to hear rumors of watchmen being killed, and of families escaping and leaving their servants or relatives to die alone in their homes. The narrator rarely explains the source of these rumors but relies on them for his sense of the plague’s intensity.

The narrator debates who should be blamed for the spread of the plague: the careless sick people themselves, or the government whose practice of shutting up houses is so ineffective? He never arrives at a conclusion. However, he himself continues to alternate between periods of self-isolation and periods during which he ventures out into the world, risking infection (especially by talking with others who may be unknowingly infected). He provides several anecdotes of right behavior that may prove instructive to other cities and people affected by similar disease.

He narrates at length two stories of Londoners whose innovation and self-preservation, in his mind, is exemplary. One is that of a poor man who lives on his boat in order to avoid infection by his wife and child. This man sails to various anchored boats, providing provisions to the families, and in doing so makes a living to support his ill family. The other story is that of three men, a Biscuit Baker (John), a Sail-maker (John’s brother, Tom), and a Joiner (or Carpenter) who flee into the country and camp at the height of the plague, making alliances with other escaped Londoners and persuading country towns to give them charity. Although the narrator does not share their caution—he meets the first man himself, and presumably hears the other tale secondhand—he admires the lengths they go to avoid infection.

The narrator suggests that, by the height of the plague, it was impossible to prevent its spread. He classifies the plague as God’s judgment on the people of London and surmises that wicked people died in greater proportion than good people. When the plague begins to abate in December of 1665, however, this is clearly God’s doing. According to the narrator, the relief at the decreasing Bills of Death makes people careless and incautious, and it is some time before the disease fully ceases. The narrator views himself as adequately thankful—and cautious—and ends his account by celebrating his survival.