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Bills of Mortality

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


Patrick Reilly

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.
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Chapter Two: Out of Sortes. A Journal of the Plague Year

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A Journal of the Plague Year

How doth the city sit solitary,

that was full of people!

She is become a widow, that

was great among the nations!


Written in 1722—just two years after the outbreak of plague in Marseilles—but relating events that occurred six decades earlier, in 1665, when the Great Plague ravaged London, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year purports to offer an eyewitness account of the infestation’s progress and effects. Defoe himself was only five years old at the time, although, as many students of the novel have pointed out, he may have nonetheless retained some memory of both the plague and the Great Fire of London that occurred a year later and supposedly—as the “quacking philosophers pretend”—eradicated the bubonic contagion. Defoe’s Journal dismisses such claims that would wed the Great Fire not only to the end of the Great Plague but also to the eradication of its cause, its “seeds”—for “had the seeds of the plague remained in the houses, not to be destroyed but by fire, how has it been that they have not since broken out … where the fire never came, and where the plague raged with greatest violence …” (237-8)—and the novel’s first-person narrative otherwise focuses entirely on the outbreak and daily tolls of the pestilence. That narrative, however, is rendered as the text not of the author Defoe but of...

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