Ebola vs. Bubonic Plague


The current concerns about Ebola causing a global pandemic sent me back to a review of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year that I wrote for the Virginian-Pilot’s Portfolio magazine some dozen years ago, which I’ve pasted below. For those keen on infectious disease or English history or human nature, the book is a terrific read. One note: my reference in the lead to the 20 million killed by the 1918 flu pandemic may have been a bit conservative. A noted infectious-disease M.D. I recently interviewed put it at 30 million.

A Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel Defoe

Reviewed by Rick Skwiot

Thanks to 20th century medical and public health advances, we now know how to prevent, stem, and treat most infectious diseases. Though a few folks may still recall the flu epidemic of 1918, which cost 20 millions lives worldwide and a half million in the United States alone, for most of us living outside the Third World, fear of epidemic has become largely a thing of the past.

But if you wish to glimpse daily life under the threat of impending death by disease (without actually being threatened by it), along with the accompanying grief, despair, depravity, kindness, and courage, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year can take you there.

However, Defoe‘s classic work is neither a journal nor of the plague year. Rather, it consists of an odd and hardly chronological collection of anecdotes, statistics, and ruminations written by the author of Moll Flanders some fifty years after the Plague of 1665(when he was but a child of four). While pretending to be a first person eyewitness account of the epidemic, the Journal is in fact convincingly realistic fiction. The author has wisely created a narrator and a literary vehicle that powerfully portrays 17th century London and the agonies of an epidemic that killed more than 100,000 in the city.

Early on, Defoe establishes credibility for his fictional construct by quoting detailed figures (seemingly culled from official documents) on the growing death tolls as the Black Death spread across London. Further, throughout the book he documents the legal measures, such as quarantining households, and describes the medical endeavors to fight the disease and its spread. But more important, having once persuaded the reader of the authenticity of his tale, Defoe gets under the skin of the plague by showing the human suffering and drama it created.

He accomplishes this through his fictional narrator, a bachelor merchant who saunters about London hearing cries of pain, listening to tales of death, observing grief-deranged survivors roaming the streets, and even visiting the mass graves where, under the cover of night, death carts dump their grisly loads.

Also, we are privy to the deliberations of our moralistic but pragmatic narrator—on whether or not to flee London with his brother’s family, on predestination and free will, on the quackery and skullduggery that fed on fear and ignorance. This imaginative character’s active, intelligent, and detailed surveillance of the epidemic places us in the streets of London and creates a work of lasting vitality.

Through him we see the people’s susceptibility to omens, religious superstition, prophets of doom, and astrologers; to quacks, charlatans, and fortune-tellers. We glimpse the duplicity and cowardice of the government and ruling class, who frequently fled London to save their own skins while abandoning their servants to penury and possible infection. We view mountebanks fleecing desperate families, nurses murdering and robbing their lingering patients, and the sick taking their own lives to save themselves a last few hours of pain. But we also are shown acts of great kindness, courage, charity, and love, as well as human ingenuity in service of a will to survive in the face of seeming doom.

Ultimately, the book is perhaps not so much about the plague as about human nature, of which Defoe is a keen observer, showing us that 17th century Londoners are not much different from ourselves. .

But as gloomy as this subject matter may seem, he can present it with a light and often-humorous touch, as in his story of the drunken piper. The beggar had passed out on the street after given an uncustomarily large amount to drink. A second man, thinking the piper a corpse, laid a plague victim beside him for the death cart to retrieve. The piper did not revive until about to pushed into a mass grave. He called out, “Where am I?” The sexton replied, “Why you are in the dead-cart, and we are going to bury you.” The piper then asked, “But I ain’t dead though, am I?”

Defoe presents the enigmatic narrator as both deeply affected by the suffering and aloof. He roams about London and its environs with seemingly little concern for his own well-being, at times viewing the horrific scenes with passion and compassion, and at other moments from a distant, Archimedean point of intellectual detachment. Along the way we get the narrator’s (and, we suspect, the author’s) views on religion, criminal justice, public health measures, medicine, government, and economics.

The pragmatism of Defoe’s narrator shows through in his discussion of the last. Virtually all commerce came to a halt in the months when the plague ruled. Ships did not dock, shops closed, construction stopped, and economic life was put on hold while death profited. Defoe shows us the repercussions of this economic death—not only the hardship, the admirable efforts of certain government officials to help the needy, and the charity of many—but also how it helped stem the spread of the disease by reducing contact among people.

In the end, it’s Defoe’s details that win out, making this fictional account read as the intimate first-person portrayal it purports to be: the 200,000 pet dogs and cats rounded up and slaughtered to help prevent the epidemic’s spread; the infection and quick death of infants who fed at the breasts of their diseased mothers; the public whippings of those who stole from the dead; the excruciating pain of the swellings brought on by the bubonic plague and the perhaps even more painful attempts by physicians to break the tumors with hot irons. Such details as these, perhaps too realistically rendered for the squeamish, give A Journal of the Plague Year an irresistible authority.

However, the whole conceit might have fallen flat had it not been crafted with such a deft, and I think, sly, touch. Defoe’s language n
ever flies toward hyperbole, but is grounded in seemingly careful observation—even when the narrator is deeply moved. Defoe’s slyness is evident in his narrator often claiming faulty memory or lack of knowledge—”whether he lived or died I don’t remember”—which augments the verisimilitude of his highly creative and still haunting work.