Bills of Mortality

Disease and Destiny in Plague Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern Times

by Patrick Reilly (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 201 Pages


Bills of Mortality: Disease and Destiny in Plague Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern Times explores the dynamic between the fact of plague and the constructs of destiny deadly disease generates in literary texts ranging from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The volume is of interest to readers in both literary and scientific, especially medical, fields. In addition, it serves as an accessible introduction to plague literature and to the arena in which it has evolved since ancient times. To undergraduate and graduate students, Bills of Mortality affords an opportunity for scholarly engagement in a topic no less timely now than it was when plague struck Milan in 1629 or ravaged Venice in 1912 or felled Thebes in antiquity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Permissions
  • Chapter One: Authoring Destiny
  • Chapter Two: Out of Sortes. A Journal of the Plague Year
  • Chapter Three: The Fourth Horseman. The Betrothed
  • Chapter Four: Dead on Arrival. Death in Venice
  • Chapter Five: The Doctor’s Dilemma. The Plague
  • Chapter Six: How to Survive a Plague. Angels in America
  • Chapter Seven: The Conversation
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Series index


← viii | ix → Permissions

Excerpts from “Death in Venice” from Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann, translation copyright © 1988 by David Luke. Used by permission of Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann (Trans. David Luke). Published by Martin Secker and Warburg (UK). Reprinted by permission of Random House Group Limited.

Excerpts from The Plague by Albert Camus and translated by Stuart Gilbert, translation copyright © 1948 by Stuart Gilbert, copyright renewed 1975 by Stuart Gilbert. Used by permission of Albert A. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. Copyright © 1992, 1993, 2003, 2013 by Tony Kushner. And from Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika. Copyright © 1992, 1993, 1996, 2003, 2013 by Tony Kushner. By permission of author.← ix | x →

← x | 1 → CHAPTER ONE

Authoring Destiny

We are not meant to live thus, Sir. Flaming swords, I say my Philip presses into me, swords that are not words; but they are neither flaming swords nor are they words. It is like a contagion, saying one thing always for another (like a contagion, I say; barely did I hold myself back from saying, a plague of rats, for rats are everywhere about us these days).


Death blackly stalks the streets of seventeenth-century London in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. A mysterious retrovirus is epidemically felling young, mostly gay men in the 1980s New York of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, and a plague ravages the ancient city of Thebes in the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. For centuries—for millennia, at least since the myth of the Plague at Aegina—the subject of plague has been generating an aesthetic that distinctly characterizes its manifold texts. While plague texts, no matter how various and culturally particular may be their elements of character and plot, repeatedly share certain identifiable metaphysical themes and mythical motifs, they are more fundamentally wed to each other by their aesthetic response to the overwhelming fact of depredatory pestilence. To classify such texts as apocalyptic is already to be approaching them in terms of their aesthetic, as the designation is not only a way of defining plague texts but also, and more importantly to an exploration of their aesthetic, a way of perceiving plague itself. For the descriptive “apocalyptic” ← 1 | 2 → also aggrandizes. It invests plagues with significance, as do the plague texts themselves: Angry gods, for example, must be appeased; a savior-scapegoat must die if the kingdom is to be delivered from the pestilence on the land. The bald facts of disease and death become aesthetically a matter of design and destiny.

As it was in ancient Greece, aesthetics is here defined as a process that originates in perception. For it is in the perception of a subject’s reality, its whatness, that the aesthetic process of translation begins. The whatness of the plague lies in the fact of it. But to see the fact as terrifying, catastrophic, apocalyptic, or redemptive is immediately to see—or to perceive—the subject in a particular way, and more particularly (and perhaps more palliatively), in an aesthetic way.

The aesthetic eye processes reality. In that process language translates the subject into a text that shows how the subject has been perceived. In the act of perception one is already a step away from the thing itself, and in the act of translation language furthers the distance from the whatness of the subject as it makes of the fact a (plague) text. That text then presents not what the subject plague was or is; rather, it represents how the plague has been intellectually perceived and aesthetically conceived. Language ascribes meaning to fact; the plague text invests the contagion with significance.

To put it another way, the vehicle for the aesthetic response to the perceived fact of plague is language. In that sense, language at once is metaphor and generates metaphor. Common to many plague texts are particular metaphorical topoi—telltale signs, angels and demons, omens and wonders, prophets, scapegoats, purification rites, destiny—by which an incomprehensible, terrifying event is authored at least into aesthetic sense. Whether that sense is lodged as well in moral philosophy, natural history, astrology, or theology, it is nonetheless, in the end as in its origin, aesthetic. Likewise, whether a topos like destiny is being viewed with hope or fear, with realistic resolve or romantic fancy; whether the language shaping it is poetic or scientific, metaphysical or matter-of-factual—it is being dressed in metaphor. Essentially metaphoric, too, is the aesthetic process that makes of plague’s fact a film, novella, treatise, fable, drama, or fantasia; that process is the vehicle that is at the same time and constantly both escaping and confronting its tenor, and in the product of that process, in the text, it is continually making its own meaning.

Moreover, the meaning in the text is not equivalent to the meaning of the text, which accrues meaning beyond the text. The plague text as text is not only aesthetically metaphoric in that its language has translated the tenor of plague’s fact into fiction, history, science, metaphysics, or myth. Often, and quite commonly in plague literature, this aesthetically metaphoric text reads also as metaphor, in that the plague as it is represented in the text is also a vehicle by which to expose or explain a plague of another, usually political, social, cultural, or moral sort. Thus the epidemic that besets Oran in Camus’s The Plague might be read as the Nazi regime ← 2 | 3 → that beleaguered France in the early 1940s; the French, in fact, referred to their Nazi occupiers epithetically (and metaphorically) as “la peste brune.” Similarly, in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, it is not just the homophobic power monger Roy Cohn who is sick and dying of AIDS, it is every right-wing conservative thing he stands for: the be-Reaganited nation itself. As Belize, his African-American gay male nurse, puts it, “You come with me to [Cohn’s] room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy, and mean.”


How a text means, then, enlarges the significance of what a text—and any particular topos within the text—means. Destiny, for instance, figures prominently in plague literature, wherein it engenders a lexicon—“chance,” “providence,” “preordination,” “fortune,” “fate,” “luck,” “contingency,” “random,” “doom”—to produce texts that variously delineate, in the matter of destiny, the metaphysics of plague. Thus, as the language of destiny occasions texts that attribute to plague a religious or philosophical dimension, aesthetics becomes metaphysics, in that the aesthetic expresses itself as metaphysics. And the metaphysical text is thus metaphoric; it at once conceals and reveals not what plague is but how the subject, plague, has been perceived and reconceived in terms of the topos destiny. Aesthetically, the topos becomes a construct, which may be poetically or scientifically defined.

To the poetic mind, generally, the compass of plague defies comprehensibility; in its devastating enormity it lies beyond human ken. So it is that the poetic response to plague enlists language as often to blame higher powers for the contagion’s ravage as to appeal to them for abatement and surcease. Either way, the poetic mind often finds in destiny, if not deliverance, at least an explanation: However painfully and mysteriously, the plague is somehow fulfilling God’s divine plan. The scientific mind, while it may reject such providential views, nonetheless embraces destiny, although it is empirically (and aesthetically) perceived as being circumstantial or conditional: Plague is an effect with a discernible cause, be it rats’ fleas or HIV. Whether scientifically formulated or poetically ratiocinated, destiny in either case gives more significance to the plague narrative than it does to plague’s fact.

Destiny, then, serves the plague narrative as an aesthetic construct. However destiny may operate in reality, if it operates at all, and however significant it may or may not be as an article of faith or a source of succor in the historical reality of ancient Greece or postmodern America, in the plays of Sophocles and Tony Kushner, destiny, in aesthetic fact, lends sense to the progress of awesome and awful events. Explicitly or in a literary network of cultural assumption and allusion, some concept of destiny, both as a condition and as an agent, is likely to inform ← 3 | 4 → texts that treat plague or apocalyptic occurrences like famine and war (which frequently precede plague).

Destiny as a condition suggests that beyond the circumstances of terrible days lies some divine plan that escapes the eye of man; beyond the perceived chaos of temporal human existence, for instance, lies a celestial and eternal order to which all things tend, what the ancient Greeks called moira. By such condition, then, an individual’s destiny, be it bountiful in good fortune or tragic in the extreme, serves some other, divine end, which may be fixed in the stars. As an agent, destiny works within the variable, earthly, temporal world of humans to bring them to their destined ends and ultimately to their final one. The Fates spin, and then they snip.

An agent itself, fate also has its agents. They might be named circumstance, chance, and consequence. In Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus, circumstance places Oedipus, by adoption the prince of Corinth, at a crossroads where by chance he encounters Laius, the king of Thebes, who is traveling to Delphi. A quarrel ensues, the consequences of which leave Laius dead. Pride and willfulness on the part of both the Corinthian prince and the Theban king, the son and the father, result in a tragic end. The cause, however, is only apparent; for it was prophesied years before that a male child born to Laius and Jocasta would kill his father and marry his mother. At the crossroads cause and effect, contingency, become the agents to destiny—again, as Oedipus has once more survived the plot of his parents, who at his birth strove to thwart destiny by infanticide. Continually assuming control of his destiny, Oedipus unwittingly continues to fulfill his destiny. For all his determination not to commit patricide and incest, he has now committed patricide and will commit incest. He seals his own fate at the same time that he seeks to escape it.

“You are the plague,” the blind seer Tiresias tells Oedipus. The plague that ravishes the land—the plague that Laius had sought to end by his visit to the oracle at Delphi—continues unabated, all the more so because the king’s murder has not yet been avenged. The gods are angry; disorder is declining into chaos. Only when Oedipus succeeds in solving the murder, and thus becomes the victim of his own vengeance, will the plague of civil war and the pestilence itself—founded upon a plague, Thebes suffers affliction upon affliction—begin to be lifted. Tyrannus will become scapegoat, and the land will be purified by his blood. The chain of events might be explained by contingency, but it is destiny that has had its way.


Written in the stars, as destiny was long believed to be, for centuries its reading and interpretation lay within the province of astrology, which strove to define correspondences between heavenly activity and earthly events and to identify the influences of the stars, moon, comets, and planets upon human pursuits in every sphere: as above, so below. Man’s concept of his star-directed destiny ← 4 | 5 → changed very little from Pythagoras to Alexander Pope, notes E. M. W. Tillyard in The Elizabethan World Picture. Not until the seventeenth century, when Bacon’s New Science, for one, disposing of the syllogistic givens of scholasticism, embraced empiricism and established a scientific method based upon inductive reasoning, does astrology begin to lose its sway.


X, 201
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Medicine History Comparative literature Plague literature
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 201 pp.

Biographical notes

Patrick Reilly (Author)

Patrick Reilly, PhD City University of New York, teaches in the English Department at Baruch College, CUNY. His articles have appeared in Journal for Camus Studies, The James Joyce Quarterly, Lire Sade, and Italica.


Title: Bills of Mortality