A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year Summary and Analysis of "I have already mentioned the Surprize..." to "I returned to my own Dwelling very well satisfied with my Days Journey..."


The narrator believed that the city was not well prepared for this calamity, both in religious and civil terms. There were no warnings that allowed people to store up provisions or let magistrates make preparations for the poor. However, the narrator points out, many of the wealthy citizens who fled did indeed donate money to help the poor. Other towns in England raised money for their poor as well. Most of the poor now lived on charity, as their trades and labor were diminished or eliminated.

The narrator identifies five categories of people most affected by the outbreak: those who worked in manufacturing since it was almost entirely stopped; those who worked on the rivers since no trade was going out; those who worked on building or repairing houses; seamen and related laborers; and servants, shopkeepers, and journeymen since families reassessed their financial situation and their needs. The cries of the poor "were most lamentable to hear; tho' by the Distribution of Charity, their Misery that way was greatly abated..." Hunger and distress were daily realities.

The charity given to the poor was necessary and successful, as it prevented the poor from raiding houses of the rich or erupting into rebellion - which the city would be ill-equipped to prevent. The poor people were "kept quiet" as they tried to emerge unscathed from the distemper. Two things helped prevent the poor from doing any mischief: the rich did not actually have many provisions stored in their houses, and the vigilance of the Lord Mayor and Magistrates who tried their best, with the gentlest and kindest methods, to help the poor. Women who were turned out of jobs were made to be nurses. Men were employed as watchmen.

The plague that raged from August to October carried off thousands of citizens. This may have actually been a good thing, the narrator notes, for they would have been "an insufferable Burden, by their Poverty, that is to say, the whole City could not have supported the Expence of them, or have provided Food for them..."

The official body count continues to climb. Those who worked in the parish offices as clerks and those who buried the bodies were not immune; many of them died too. The narrator gives his opinion that 100,000 died of the plague that year. He thought there might be more, as many despairing people wandered off into the country and died under bushes or on the sides of roads or in the woods unaccounted for.

The narrator walked about London at this time, observing how desolate the streets were. He saw a few carts carrying the dead but little else. There were few doctors who still visited houses to look upon the sick. Other eminent faculty and surgeons were dead too.

One of the worst days occurred in September, when "indeed good People began to think, that God was resolved to make a full End of the People in this miserable City." The plague came into the Eastern parishes and the body count soared. The carts for the dead could barely keep up with those dying, and sometimes bodies were left in houses for days until neighbors complained of the stink. However, the Magistrates of the city "cannot be commended enough in this, that they kept such good Order for the burying of the Dead...it was never to be said of London, that the living were not able to bury the dead."

As the desolation increased, people were observed screaming in the streets and wringing their hands with greed. One religious man, Solomon Eagle, was often to be seen announcing the Judgment of the city and running about naked. Most people continued to engage in worship, however. They prayed, cried out to God, confessed their sins, asked for counsel, and pleaded with ministers to comfort them.

One day the narrator, who was tired of remaining in his home, decided to venture out to the post house to deliver a letter for his brother. The streets were quiet and deserted. Those who did come out were very careful with themselves. As the narrator walked he wondered how many people had taken to isolating themselves on boats to avoid getting the plague.

He walked down to the water and met a man named Robert, who sadly told him of the houses along the bank that had been visited by the plague. He was a poor man, but he kept working so he could support his wife and son, who lived in one of the shut up houses. The narrator observed that this man was religious and honest, and was moved by his sad tale. The man lived in his boat and made money by ferrying people and running errands for others who also lived on the water. He was very careful not to come into contact with people on the shore.

The narrator accompanied the man as he approached his house and laid out a small amount of money and provisions for his family on a stone. After retiring to a safe distance, Robert watched as his wife Rachel emerged and took what he had left for her. She had a swelling that burst and might heal, but the man feared his son would die. Struck with the sadness of the scene, the narrator was moved to give the man more money. The man was incredibly grateful, as was his wife.

The narrator and the man walked a bit more, the narrator inquiring whether or not the people in the boats had time to get provisions. Many did, but others were not so fortunate. The man said he was going over to Greenwich and the narrator decided to accompany him. He promised he did not have the distemper and the man believed him. The narrator observed from Greenwich the amount of ships – hundreds of them – where people were living, "sheltered from the Violence of the Contagion and liv'd very safe and very easy."


In this section, the narrator finds it difficult to stay within his own home and continues his perambulations about the city. He encounters Solomon Eagle, who was a real man that historical records reveal ran about Bartholomew Fair in 1662, naked with a pan of charcoal of his head and warning everyone to repent. H.F. also encounters a man who lived and worked by the river, doing his best to provide for his sick wife and son who were shut up in their home. H.F. is so moved by his plight and by his sincere devoutness, that he gives the man money for his afflicted family. He commented that September was one of the worst months yet, with people dying throughout the city and the living running and screaming in the streets.

H.F. mentions that he felt sorry for many of the poor, especially domestic servants. He also comments that the poor people were generally taken care of by the city and did not raid the houses of the rich, an assertion that is repeated later in the text when he reports that Londoners did not turn into an unruly mob in a time of plague. Most writings on the plague did focus on ways in which to prevent disorder and the breakdown of communal and political organization. Defoe's work, which features an impartial narrator trusted for his judgment and rationality, is distinguishable from contemporary works for, as Defoe scholar Maximillian Novak writes, "its remarkable concern for the ordinary man and his anguish as the city struggled to survive." The narrator's sympathies are with the masses. Both rich and poor are victims; even their bodies are thrown into the mass grave together because proper burials simply didn't matter in the wake of so much death.

H.F. is sympathetic to both the people of London as a group and to individuals. In regards to the people as a group, he defends them against rumors of mob-like behavior, not only giving justifications for any untoward actions, but ultimately extinguishing any rumor of a real plunge into chaos and immorality. Novak compares Defoe's work with the writings of Samuel Pepys, who, though similarly frightened as Defoe's narrator, did not focus much on the actual afflicted people of London. His diary thus, "indicates just how odd A Journal of the Plague Year is. It represents a concentration on the life of the poor as never had been attempted before...it is a novel with a collective hero – the London poor – and though it ends with the triumphant voice of the Saddler proclaiming his survival, it is the survival of London that matters."

Defoe's own political beliefs on mobs are important. Novak concludes that Defoe's views on the mob were slightly different than those of his contemporaries, and that "behind Defoe's...respect for property [are] more radical elements of thought." Defoe distinguished between "good" mobs and "bad" mobs, understanding that sometimes the mob indicated a larger underlying problem that needed to be addressed by the government. Fears of the mob surfaced in 1721 when the plague returned to Marseilles; this was the precipitating incident for Defoe's writing of the Journal. Defoe also expressed sympathy and outrage for the French people quarantined in Toulon.

Defoe's reluctance to excoriate the mob was linked to his – and his narrator, H.F.'s – sympathy for the poor, evinced throughout the Journal. Novak states that the "main impulse behind A Journal of the Plague Year was a demonstration of human pity and fellowship in the worst of disasters...Defoe achieves his effect by showing a London in 1665 in which family love frequently triumphed over the drive for self-preservation."

Many stories of family sacrifice dot the novel, impressing readers with the magnitude of sympathy, kindness, mercy, and love. There are comparably few stories of avarice or cruelty. Defoe's narrator is humane and compassionate. Novak concludes that the novel is "about the despair of 1721 through the suffering and triumph of 1665, and the charity of the narrator embraces those who fled the city and those who stayed, Church of England man and Non-conformist, the living and the dead."