Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe


Title: A Journal of the Plague Year
Author: Daniel Defoe
Published:  1722
Challenges: Back to the Classics Challenge (a forgotten classic)


A Journal of the Plague Year is the narrator's first-hand account of the Bubonic Plague, when it devastated London in 1665.  Although it is considered fictional, it is possible that the narration was taken from the journal of Defoe's uncle, Henry Foe.  In recent times, it has been regarded as historical fiction.

I am having a difficult time thinking of what to communicate about this book, so I will record what comes to mind: first, I chose it for my Back to the Classics Challenge, a forgotten classic, because I had just finished reading Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and had a favorable opinion.  When searching for a "forgotten classic," this title came up and had positive reviews.  

Well, it is not a riveting novel, but it was interesting.  The narrator told how his city, London, persevered through a most destructive and calamitous event in its history.  He explained how officials meant to protect the people by keeping the news quiet in the beginning; but as it was obvious of the inevitable, the wealthy were able to get away while the poor were left behind to battle the disease. Even the narrator struggled with what to do, and in the end he decided to stay in the city and trust God with his "safety and health."

He also gave reasons why he made a record of his observations:
I have set this particular down so fully, because I know not but it may be of moment to those who come after me, if they come to be brought to the same distress, and to the same manner of making their choice; and therefore I desire this account may pass with them rather for a direction to themselves to act by than a history of my acting, seeing it may not be of one farthing value to them to note what became of me.
The results of the Plague are disheartening.  The city had to deal with the increase in crime, as people's hearts were hardened and they no longer cared about the law or their neighbors.  The poor were ignorant and easily taken advantage of by false prophecies, predictions apparitions, ministers, and doctors.  And the stories about desperation, loss of loved ones, and people dying in the street are naturally sorrowful.

Meanwhile, interestingly enough, the government "encouraged" the people "their devotion, and appointed public prayers and days of fasting and humiliation, to make public confession of sin and implore the mercy of God to avert the dreadful judgment which hung over their heads."  The government even prohibited entertainment, such as gaming and dancing-rooms, as a way to cover sins.

Over all, the journal is somewhat disorganized, and the narrator repeats himself often, or is contradictory.  For example, it is obvious that he disagreed with the official decision to keep whole families and servants "shut up" in their homes when only one person was confirmed with the distemper; but later he admitted how essential it was that people obeyed the order to stay put, instead of escaping and risking the spread of the disease since it was not always easy to know who was infected and who was healthy.  But then I cannot complain about his journal because I know my journal writing, and disorganization and repetition are the least of it. 

At the very end, when the Plague subsided, the narrator commended city officials for their courage to remain in London, to be examples and to lead the people, and to act quickly in making rules to protect the people, even enforcing the "shut up" rule.  But overall, he praised God for the restoration of his city and the preservation of those who had survived.  

12 comments:

  1. I read this a long time ago and the only thing I truly remember is its disorganized, disjointed retelling. I wasn't that thrilled with it and I think it's kept me from reading more Defoe (fortunately I read Robinson Crusoe before this one, which I LOVED!!). I need to change that. I was kind of eyeing Moll Flanders but A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain might even be more of a forgotten classic. Hmmmm...... perhaps I should draw straws ....... :-)

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    1. Cleo, I'm going to try Moll Flanders one of these days, and A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain sounds like a good one. (I'm judging a book by its title obviously.)

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    2. I'm also interested in trying Moll Flanders! It's been on my soon list for a while. :)

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    3. Perhaps we can all read along together once we get all these read-alongs out of the way and our book schedules cleared a little.

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    4. That sounds like a plan. : )

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  2. I am currently writing a novel about a girl surviving the 1348-49 outbreak of plague, so this sounds like a must-read for me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and review. It sounds like it may not be the most riveting HF in the world, but a necessary read for me nonetheless.

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    1. Susanna, if you are using the Plague as a backdrop to your novel, this would be an excellent source. It is very detailed about the results of the Plague, including statistics. It was also a very sad time for the city, and you can definitely feel that from the narrator.

      Good luck!

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  3. I have heard of this book but never read it. It doesn't sound like one I'd like to read too soon although I think it would be good to eventually read it. I read Robinson Crusoe out loud to my son which we both enjoyed. I've been curious about Moll Flanders. Maybe I'll wait and read someone's review on it first.

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    1. It's possible that there may be a read-along of Moll Flanders forming somewhere above. I'll let you know if and when...

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  4. I'm not a huge fan of Defoe, but this does sound interesting even if it's not the best read. Got it on my Classic Club list along with From London to Land's End, which I'm also both looking forward to and putting off! :)

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    1. One thing about Defoe that I have noticed so far is that he can write a sentence about the size of a paragraph. That makes for complicated reading and comprehension.

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