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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 Seven: The Conversation

← 170 | 171 → CHAPTER SEVEN


When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city tremble.


Plague changes everything. It menaces the narrative realities of Defoe’s London in 1665, Manzoni’s Milan three decades earlier, Mann’s Venice in the early twentieth century, and Camus’s Oran of 194–; it convulses both the real and dream worlds of Kushner’s New York, and Reaganite America, still in the throes of the AIDS epidemic when Angels in America was staged on Broadway in 1993 and restaged off Broadway by the Signature Theater Company in 2010. Even after the fact of the pestilence in London, Milan, Venice, and Oran, plague dismays the narrators of its contagion, as they recount its effects on the life of the city and the lives of their characters. The relationship between the characters’ reportorial or artistic, religious or scientific, social or political selves and destiny, whether personally or providentially conceived, before the introduction of plague into their biographies, is fundamentally, momentously, changed by the introduction of plague into their biographies. It strikes like a wayward comet coursing through the night sky; it cracks nature’s mirror. It is an encounter with chance. Or a judgment by God. What was accepted as “truth” is questioned, doubted, challenged, shattered, by the arrival of plague; what had been conceived (in relative metaphysical comfort) as destiny must (in spiritual distress and scientific uncertainty) be reconfigured ← 171 | 172 → in the face of plague. In the wake of London’s plague as H. F. has...

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