A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What are H.F.'s views on the poor people of London?

    As H.F. relates in his narration, many outsiders believed that the people of London were almost completely given over to selfishness, avarice, and immorality. H.F. takes pains to debunk these rumors. He is remarkably sympathetic and understanding of the plight of the poor, commending the virtue he observes. He plays down or refutes outright any negative stories that reach his ears, such as claims that the plague-stricken purposefully infected others or mobs rose often among the poor. He shows great compassion for the domestic servants who became afflicted with the distemper in higher numbers and were often fired when the house no longer needed their services. He gives away his own money to the boatman so he could feed his family. He tells stories of great charity, humility, and sincere grief and lament. Grieving fathers, dying mothers, and feeble old women populate his narration. He believed that the poor were affected far more intensely than the rich, and commended the government for taking care of them as best they could. Overall, H.F. has a kind and sympathetic tone in his writing on the poor; this is rather unprecedented in the literature on the plague, which tended to demonize the poor and fret about their immoral, teeming presence in the city. H.F. lauds their endurance and ingenuity and establishes himself as a paragon of compassion and humanity.

  2. 2

    How does Defoe suggest the horror and human suffering of the plague?

    Defoe is a master of depicting human suffering during the plague through his usage of powerful images and evocations of sound. He tells stories of nursing mothers who transmit the plague to their children; fathers whose entire households are wiped out; and beloved family members left to moulder alone in abandoned houses. The streets were alternately empty or populated with people screaming in pain or mourning. The swelling from the plague caused people to go insane, sometimes trying to burn their own skin or throwing themselves into burial pits to relieve their suffering. Londoners lamented the loss of their freedom, autonomy, and sanity as houses were shut up. They embraced religion and poured out anguished confessions and asked for redemption. Defoe's work is a testament to human fortitude and endurance, but it is also a record of the tremendous pains and privations suffered by the population.

  3. 3

    What rumors about the plague and the people of London does H.F. endeavor to debunk?

    H.F. is keen to present a portrait of the people of London that is fair and balanced. He therefore debunks several rumors and refuses to believe many of the anecdotes that reach his ears. He does not believe that infected people purposefully infected the healthy. He does not believe that nurses were prone to killing their patients. He does not believe that the poor people wanted to form mobs or ravage the houses of the rich. He takes pains to reveal to the outside world that the city's civility did not collapse; although things were tragic and confusing, they were not chaotic or disorderly. Finally, he supports the city officials and corrects any rumors that they did not pick up dead bodies. They were merciful and generous and made sure their poorer denizens had enough to eat. All in all, they behaved quite admirably. Thus, H.F. very sympathetically depicts the situation in London for what it really was, and refuses to believe that the people turned into the worst versions of themselves.

  4. 4

    How do Londoners feel about religion during the plague?

    There were several responses to religion during the plague. Many Londoners embraced phony religious folk, such as astrologers and fortunetellers. Others pointed to the plague as an example of the wrath of God, who was passing judgment upon the city. They confessed their sins, prayed for mercy, and tried to alter their ways. H.F. did these very things as well, pointing multiple times to the fact that the plague was from God and spending a copious amount of time praying to be absolved of his sins. Still others mocked God; H.F. lamented that the company of men at Pye Tavern should be so blasphemous of their Creator. The fear felt by these men concerning the plague and their likely imminent deaths caused them to disavow all religion and mock the pretensions to piety that their neighbors took. H.F. also notes that many of the religious breaches present before the plague were temporarily healed; Londoners went to any church they felt like attending and heard sermons from speakers they would have shunned before the plague. This happy development was short-lived, however, and conditions returned to normal after the plague. Thus, religion was comforting for most people and was a way to attempt to give some meaning to the terrible distemper.

  5. 5

    What are H.F.'s views on the shutting up of houses?

    H.F. vacillates on his opinion of whether or not the shutting up of houses was beneficial or not. On the one hand, he lauds city officials for this practice, realizing that it kept a great many sick people off of the streets. Since there were only a couple of pest-houses, which were quite inaccessible to the poor, the shutting up of houses was really the only way to prevent sick people from walking about and infecting others. However, H.F. fills the narrative with reasons why the shutting up of houses was ineffectual and dangerous. Firstly, it simply did not work as well as officials had hoped. Watchmen were bribed or lied to. They could not watch every window and every door of every house, and many families were able to escape under their very noses. People lied for their neighbors and masters of the house did not alert the officials right away when someone was ill, thus giving them enough time to get out before the house was shut up. Secondly, the practice was dangerous. Many watchmen were beaten and killed by angry citizens who wanted to leave. Healthy people fell sick when imprisoned in their house with sick relatives. Thirdly, the practice made people immeasurably angrier, crazed, and depressed than they would have been if they were allowed to go free. Thus, this practice was imperfect and H.F. was divided in his opinion. He is never more contradictory in the Journal on any other topic.

  6. 6

    Is the Journal better classified as fact or fiction?

    This question has consumed critics of the Journal since its publication. On the one hand, there is a fictional narrator and his story of survival is a product of Defoe's imagination. Many of the tales are anecdotal or apocryphal; some are clearly embellished or invented, such as the tale of a man so burdened with grief that his body began to stoop lower, or the story of a man running furiously into the Thames, bursting his swellings, and thus curing himself of the plague. Defoe's imagination is vibrant, and many of the stories related are clearly fictional. However, Defoe used real historical sources in writing this work; he includes bills of mortality, copious data and statistics, and medical information. Many of the characters are real, and many of the stories can be traced to actual incidents from the plague. H.F., the narrator, is apparently based on Defoe's own uncle, Henry Foe. H.F.'s narration, furthermore, is barely even that: it is a messy, digressive, rambling, contradictory, nonlinear affair, populated with government documents (the bills of Mortality and the Orders) and data. The Journal, then, seems to be a hybrid of history and fiction. Defoe allows his (mostly) fictional narrator to utilize both fact and fiction to relate a story of immense tragedy and suffering. In the end, it does not seem to matter much whether or not this work is a novel or a record; it is both, and it is immeasurably moving and meaningful.

  7. 7

    What advice does Defoe want to impart to his readers if plague is to come again?

    Defoe wrote the Journal when information of the plague returning to Marseilles was circulating London. His work was to provide advice, instruction, and comfort to people who feared a return of the 1665 distemper. He counseled that the best advice was to run away from the plague. In particular, he thought pregnant and nursing women should remove themselves right away. Only then could the people avoid being sequestered with the sick or have to come into contact with them in church or the marketplace. He also believed that if people decided to remain that they must have enough provisions to weather the storm and must remain shut up in their houses for the duration. He warned people against wasting their money on quacks and mountebanks, and to be more rational about how the plague was spread. Finally, he hoped his Journal would change the hearts and minds of people; they should be more moral, reasonable, and grateful for their deliverance.

  8. 8

    What is the character of H.F. like?

    There is not much background information on H.F. provided in the Journal. He is unmarried and a saddler by profession. He has siblings who fled the city when the plague arrived. He lives with several domestic servants in Aldgate parish. As this is a first-person narrative, information about H.F. can only be gleaned from his personal recollections and ruminations. He appears to be a profoundly religious man. Not only does he continuously refer to the plague as God's will, he bases his decision to remain within the city on a moment of bibliomancy. After landing upon a verse from Psalms about plague and endurance, he feels like he has received a mandate from God to stay. However, H.F. later realizes he was in error, and bitterly laments his decision. He is also a man who feels guilt intensely, and much of his internment in his house is spent praying and confessing. H.F. is also very contradictory and fickle; he cannot seem to make up his mind on whether or not the shutting up of houses was ultimately beneficial or not. He is a compassionate man, full of mercy and kindness for the poor and the sick. He is touched by the stories of human suffering and redemption during the plague. Finally, though religious, he is also a very rational man: he excoriates the fortunetellers and quacks who preyed on the poor, refuses to believe the stories of angels and demons and spirits, and rejects any absurd hypotheses as to how the plague spread.

  9. 9

    What are the omens foretelling the plague, and how do the people of London react to them?

    Londoners in 1665 were particularly superstitious, and many of them claimed to have divined omens and prophecies predicting the plague and its function as a tool of God's wrath and judgement. The most conspicuous omens were the comets - one for the plague and one for the fire, as the people believed. The comet for the plague was "of a faint, dull, languid Color, and its Motion very heavy, solemn, and slow" (21) and it clearly seemed to foretell "a heavy Judgment, slow but severe, terrible and frightful, as was the Plague" (21). Fortunetellers and philosophers spread their ideas that a calamity was coming. Old women began having strange dreams, seeing apparitions, and envisioning angels with flaming swords descend from the clouds. Astrologers warned that the planets aligned in a malignant manner. The people of London, particularly the poor, reacted to these omens and prophecies in a hysterical, irrational fashion. They began to give their money to fortunetellers and purchased amulets, charms, and philters to protect themselves from the plague. They gave their money to worthless quack doctors who promised to keep them healthy. Their ignorance was all-consuming. Thankfully, as the doctors in particular began to prove themselves false, the people of London ceased their interaction with them, and the community of mountebanks and fake astrologers faded.

  10. 10

    What do the Orders reveal about the city's management of the plague?

    Defoe prints the Orders at length in the Journal, revealing a city government that was trying, in the most organized fashion possible, to control the plague and keep the city calm and orderly. The Orders set up a system for the shutting up of houses, appointing people to search them and ascertain if there were any sick people within. Watchmen were ordered to stand guard outside the houses so no one could escape. There were rules regarding the burial of the dead and the clothing of infected persons. Houses were to be clearly marked. Hackney coach drivers had to follow certain rules if a sick person rode with them. Rotting food was to be destroyed, as well as the animals that roamed about the city. The city also tried to crack down on assemblies of many people, closing down plays, games, and other gatherings at taverns and alehouses. Begging was prohibited. The parties involved with enforcing these rules were to meet and discuss their findings. Although H.F. notes that the shutting up of houses was unpopular, the government of London is to be commended for their fair, reasonable, and orderly system to prevent the plague from spreading. Ultimately, their efforts are successful, especially as major riots were avoided and many people did emerge unscathed from the distemper.