Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year is a first-person, mostly nonlinear narrative told by protagonist H.F., an unmarried saddler whose name is only revealed by his signature at the end of the work. The Journal is a tale of his experiences during the plague that afflicted London in 1665; the work is thus fiction but is peppered with statistics, data, charts, and government documents. H.F. begins by relating rumors that the plague had come to Holland, and closely follows the bills of mortality. Certain parishes are affected, but cold weather seems to stave off the worst of the plague during the winter. However, in May and June the numbers of dead begin to swing upwards and H.F. starts to wonder whether or not he should leave the city. After some debate back and forth, he decides that God wants him to remain.
H.F. observes that the rich are leaving the city and the poor are being strongly affected by the distemper. He relates how they succumbed to the wiles of quack doctors, fortunetellers, mountebanks, and astrologers in their fear and anxiety of the imminent plague.
City officials are rational and organized concerning the spreading plague, and publish the Orders of the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London. These set up rules and regulations for the appointment of searchers and examiners and watchmen to guard the houses, for the shutting up of infected houses, and for the shutting down of events in which large groups of people would congregate. H.F. is generally against the shutting up of houses, commenting that it seemed to do more harm than good in most cases and could barely prevent the plague from spreading because Londoners found ways to escape or delude city officials.
H.F. tells many stories of how the people of London were affected by the plague. These stories include tales of grieving fathers, crazed men running through the streets, people throwing themselves into burial pits due to pain or grief, husbands trying to support their families, people blaspheming the name of God, houses being looted, and people trying to escape the city and travel to other towns in search of reprieve. H.F. is keen to debunk rumors that all was chaos in the city during the plague; he is sympathetic to the plight of the poor and refuses to believe the sordid rumors that surround the days of plague. He relates many stories of mercy, charity, and redemption.
H.F.'s narrative is rambling, digressive, and oftentimes contradictory, and he returns to several subjects over and over again – particularly the shutting up of houses and his conviction that the only way to survive the plague is to run away from it. He believes he erred in remaining in the city, and confesses his sins to God and begs for forgiveness. He spends his time shut up in his house for days on end, and when he can bear it no longer, he walks about the city. He muses on the causes of the plague and how it is spread, rejecting outlandish explanations but concluding that, while it must have some human causes, it is from God.
As he writes, he includes updated bills of mortality that trace the numbers dead from plague, which grow exponentially as the outbreak rages. He commends the city officials for their rational conduct, lauding the fact that there were never scores of dead bodies in the street, that provisions never fell to dangerous levels, and charitable measures were put in place to help the poor. Unfortunately, foreign trade takes some time to revive because those engaged in commerce avoid London.
September is the worst month of the plague, but eventually the bills begin to reveal that the distemper is abating. Less people were becoming infected and those who were ill were getting better much faster. For a while this information actually has a negative impact, as the people who saw the bills became careless and accidentally spread the plague even further, but thankfully the evidence that the plague was disappearing was validated some time later. H.F. observes that while many people are truly grateful for their deliverance and try to live their lives differently, most return to their old, sinful ways and appear to have learned nothing from their trials. H.F. ends his narrative with a small verse exulting that he survived.