A Journal of the Plague Year Summary and Analysis
by Daniel Defoe
"It was thought that there were not less than 10000 Houses forsaken..." to "I have already mentioned the Surprize..."
The narrator writes that he knew of about 200,000 people who fled from the city. Those with two houses were lucky in that a sick person could be left in one house while the healthy members could retire to the other home. However, sometimes people did not know they were sick and went about their daily life, unknowingly affecting others with the distemper. Many times the distemper came into houses by means of the servants, who went about the streets on errands.
The narrator disagreed with the idea that the infection was spread by "certain Steams, or the Sweat, or by the Stench of the Sores of the sick Persons..." He also marveled that some people merely saw that infection as "an immediate Stroke from Heaven, without the Agency of Means..." He knew this belief came from the entrenched ignorance and enthusiasm amongst the people. These people also thought the infection might come from invisible insects or creatures.
Nothing was more harmful to the people of the city than negligence; those who prepared wisely, stocking their homes with provisions, were able to lock themselves in their houses and wear out the storm. The narrator confessed that he failed to prepare, and so had to send his servants out of doors to replenish his supplies.
H.F. writes of the intense pain suffered by the afflicted; they would have extremely hard swellings in the neck and groin, and no matter how they tried to break the sores, they often could not do so. The pain was exquisite and overwhelming, to the extent that some went insane and tried to throw themselves out their windows or shoot themselves. Others simply screamed and roared for hours on end.
The narrator often regretted his decision to remain in town. He prayed all day, confessed his sins, thanked God for his preservation, and wrote down his memorandums and meditations. One of his physician friends, Dr. Heath, visited him often.
As August began, the plague grew more and more terrible to behold. The narrator brewed his own beer and baked his own bread, but still had to send his servants out for more. The purchasing of provisions was a way in which the infection spread throughout the city. Poorer people especially could not lay up provisions in advance and had to venture out to the markets. Precautions were taken, but it was not uncommon to see someone drop dead in public. Some "perhaps had Time to go to the next Bulk or Stall; or to any Door, Porch, and just sit down and die..."
Even though the narrator knew he should remain indoors, he could not resist walking around the city. He saw terrifying sights of people dying in the streets, women shrieking and others throwing themselves out their windows. One time he heard mournful lamentations coming from a house, and learned the master of the house had hung himself.
Those who lived with the pain of the distemper were tormented and tried to end their lives. The narrator heard stories of women murdering their children, people dying of grief, or "others frighted into Idiotism, and foolish Distractions, some into dispair and Lunacy; others into mellancholy Madness." People tried to burst their swellings, but these were so hard that they could not be broken by any instrument. If the swelling could actually be broken, then the patient usually recovered. Those who did not know they were ill and did not get huge swellings often died rapidly, without much forewarning.
The narrator did not find too much truth in the stories of people murdering each other; while several cases had been confirmed, he doubts the crime was committed as often as rumored. H.F. finds it suspicious that varying tales of murder often had specific details in common and the crime always seemed to take place at the opposite end of town from where the storyteller happened to be. Avarice and greed, however, proliferated. Often clothes and jewelry were stolen off of corpses.
Most of the thieves were women. The narrator relates a personal story of when he went to visit his brother's empty house and discovered several women leaving his property wearing hats his brother kept in his warehouses for exportation. The narrator questioned these women as they left, and they told him they heard that the goods were available for everyone because they had no owner. The narrator was angry and locked the gate, effectively keeping the women as his prisoners. He did not want to go too far, and contented himself with just taking down some of the names and addresses of the thieves.
At this time he met two men that were neighbors of his brother. One of them was named John Hayward. He was an under-sexton of the parish of St. Stephen Coleman-street and also a gravedigger and burier of the dead. He and his wife used simple remedies to ward off the plague; Hayward would keep garlic and rue (evergreen) in his mouth and his wife would wash her head with vinegar. Hayward told the tale of the piper to the narrator. The piper, an old, poor man, went from house to house playing songs. When anyone asked him how he was doing, he would joke, "the death cart had not taken him yet, but that they had promised to call for him next week." One day, after drinking more than usual, he lay down to sleep and was taken for dead by those who drove the cart. They picked up his body and put it in the cart, and he slept on. They drove to the graveyard and were about to throw the bodies in the pit when the piper cried out. This situation brought a laugh to the men, and the piper went along his way.
The horrors of the plague are further illuminated in this section. H.F. describes a veritable Hell, with people screaming in the streets and roaring inside the confining walls of their own homes. Some dropped dead in the streets and their bodies laid there until they were picked up. The swellings on their bodies grew monstrously large and were so hard that they could rarely be broken. They stretched the skin and were unbearably painful in their tautness. Crazed from the pain, the afflicted tried to open the swellings by any means necessary, trying to cut or burn them open. There were stories told of women who murdered their children to relieve them of the pain, or those that died from melancholy, or nurses who murdered their infected patients. The immorality that often accompanied plague is mentioned here; people began to rob and steal from others - especially from the dead.
H.F. himself finally realizes that he erred in staying in the city, for he was not prepared enough to outlast the distemper. He admired the smart Londoners who, upon hearing of the plague, stocked up on the provisions they would need for many months and barricaded themselves within their homes. These people were most successful at waiting out the plague. H.F. was industrious enough to brew his own beer and make his own bread, but it was still not enough and his servants had to venture out into the city to buy more provisions. H.F. spent his time indoors repenting his sins and "giving myself up to God every Day, and applying to him with Fasting, Humiliation, and Meditation..."
The tale of the piper is a curious one, and one that it was supposed Defoe invented for the Journal. However, scholarly work has since shown that it was probably a real story imparted to Defoe by a survivor of the plague. The story was also found in the memoirs of Sir John Reresby, which were published about three years after Defoe's death in 1734. Defoe did not even embellish the story too much, and actually stripped some of the "picturesque details which appear in Reresby's version", as scholar F. Bastian writes. Defoe even claimed credence for this story first since he had heard it from one of the bearers, John Hayward. There was an actual record from the parish of a John Hayward who died on October 5th, 1684 and a record of him as a sexton in 1673.
As for his friend Dr. Heath, Bastian writes that he has generally been considered a fictitious character because there is no record of him in the Royal College of Physicians. However, there is a record of a marriage between "Jeaffrie Heath of this parish surgant, son of Nicholas Heath, late surgant of London, deceased" and Elizabeth Dixon of Waterford. Surgeons were not allowed to technically call themselves doctors, but during this time of plague they were taking on the duties of physicians. One other speculation was that Dr. Heath was modeled after Nathaniel Hodges, the author of Loimologia, one of Defoe's sources for the Journal. As previously noted, Defoe's fiction is the product of copious research.
There were, of course, many theories about the ways in which the plague was spread, and H.F. takes up a few of them here. He seems to favor the contagionist theory - that disease was transmitted through physical contact and not through the air; this theory opposes the idea that the plague was caused by "fatal breath". It was believed that, "invisible fumes from rotting or infected bodies carried poisonous particles through the air", as Cynthia Wall wrote in her annotations to the Penguin edition of the Journal. Others believed the plague was from God and those who died were specifically chosen by their Maker to perish. A continental theory centered on insects and invisible creatures spreading the disease, but English doctors and H.F. did not believe this was true. Later, it was discovered that the pathogen responsible for the bubonic plague was carried by rat fleas and transmitted through their bites.
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- Daniel Defoe: Biography
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- About A Journal of the Plague Year
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- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of "It was about the Beginning of September 1664..." to "But I must go back to the Beginning of this Surprizing Time..."
- Summary and Analysis of "But I must go back again to the Beginning of this Surprizing Time..." to "These Orders of my Lord Mayor's were publish'd..."
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- Summary and Analysis of "In other Cases, some had Gardens, and Walls..." to "It was thought that there were not less than 10000 Houses forsaken..."
- Summary and Analysis of "It was thought that there were not less than 10000 Houses forsaken..." to "I have already mentioned the Surprize..."
- Summary and Analysis of "I have already mentioned the Surprize..." to "I returned to my own Dwelling very well satisfied with my Days Journey..."
- Summary and Analysis of "I returned to my own Dwelling very well satisfied with my Days Journey..." to "Here the Watch plac'd upon Bow Bridge would have question'd them..."
- Summary and Analysis of "Here the Watch plac'd upon Bow Bridge would have question'd them..." to "I give this Story thus at large..."
- Summary and Analysis of "I give this Story thus at large..." to "This might be sufficient to convince any reasonable Person..."
- Summary and Analysis of "This might be sufficient to convince any reasonable Person..." to "This leads me again to mention the Time..."
- Summary and Analysis of "This leads me again to mention the Time..." to "It is true, that the next Year made them full amends by another terrible Calamity upon the City..."
- Summary and Analysis of "It is true, that the next Year made them full amends by another terrible Calamity upon the City..." to the End of the Novel
- The Great Fire of London, 1666
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