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