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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 Five: The Doctor’s Dilemma. The Plague

← 103 | 104 →CHAPTER FIVE


The Plague

What is the novel, in fact, if not the universe where action finds its form, where the final words are said, the human being abandoned to the other human beings, where everything bears the mark of destiny.


John Cruickshank in Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt refers guardedly in the chapter titled “The Art of the Novel” to Camus’s The Plague (La peste) as a ­roman-mythe. Moreover, he notes that “the whole conception and construction of La peste make it one of the most impressive novels of recent times to which the term roman-mythe may be applied” (166). The designation is nonetheless deceptive, and Cruickshank himself qualifies the aptness of it. While it is true that in the broadest sense, in its narrative framework, Camus’s novel can be read as a roman-mythe, more narrowly, in its narrative detail—in that The Plague deals with a real event, a particular plague, ostensibly in the realistic manner of a chronicle—Cruickshank views the work as being not exclusively mythic. Rather, he places it also in the symbolist tradition, for concealed in what is present in a literal reading of the novel as realism, i.e., as a chronicle, is another, abstract and absent “mythic” reality.

Most plague texts have their genesis in fact. The Plague is no exception. Therefore, to study the aesthetics of plague literature—or more particularly, the aesthetic constructs of destiny in plague literature—is...

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