The first-person narrative begins with narrator H.F. explaining that the plague was newly returned to Holland in 1664. No one knew exactly where it came from, but it was certainly back. There were few newspapers in those days to spread information, but word of mouth brought news from abroad. The rumors died down eventually and people assumed the plague was over.
Unfortunately, there is soon news of two Frenchmen dying of the plague in Long Acre, despite their families' efforts to conceal it. Surgeons visited the dead and confirmed that they had indeed died of the plague. After a few weeks no new news of the plague reached the ears of Londoners, so they felt calm and safe once more. However, the weekly bills began to show an increase in deaths from St. Giles's Parish. Travelers avoided the area as word of more deaths seeped out. Records demonstrated that burials increased considerably, both in St. Giles and other parishes.
As winter arrived with a frost in December and cold winds through February, the number of deaths reported in the bills lessened and people began to perceive that the danger was over, except in St. Giles's parish. When numbers of the dead spiked again when the weather grew warmer, alarm increased. The "distemper" was spread into other parishes during this time.
In early May the weather was relatively temperate and cool, and the people's hopes remained high. For a few days they were relieved, but then "the People were no more to be deceived thus; they searcht the Houses, and found that the Plague was really spread every way, and that many died of it every Day..." As May passed, the death toll in St. Giles was frightfully high.
The weather grew hot and the infection spread quickly. People tried to conceal their illness and their neighbors shunned them. Four people died within the city.
The narrator lived in Aldgate, about midway between Aldgate Church and White-Chappel-Bars on the left-hand side of the street; thankfully, his neighborhood was unaffected for now. At the other end of town, however, the people were distressed about the spreading disease and many wealthy people fled the city with their families and servants. The narrator was filled with sadness because he knew what it augured for the poor people of the city.
People crowded at the doors of the Lord Mayor's home to procure a Certificate of Health in order to travel abroad. This certificate was necessary to lodge in inns or pass through towns along the roads. It was not difficult to get the certificates for a while, but rumors began to spread of the government erecting barricades along the roads to deter people from London to pass.
The narrator begins to seriously question whether or not he should also flee. He considers that his shop, where he is a saddler, contained all of his effects in the world. He was loath to leave it. He was a single man but he did have a family of servants and he did not entirely trust to leave his possessions with them.
He had an elder brother in London who encouraged him to save himself and flee. The brother believed "the best preparation for the Plague was to run away from it," and told the narrator that it was not wise to trust God with his safety and health by remaining in the affected area. The narrator considered going to Lincolnshire where his sister resided. As his brother had already sent his own children and wife along, the narrator knew it was time for him to go as well. He tried to get a horse but could not as "there was hardly a Horse to be bought or hired in the whole City for some Weeks."
The narrator's plan to leave was foiled by his servant deceiving him and leaving him alone though he had promised to help him flee. The narrator began wondering whether or not this was a sign that he ought to stay; perhaps it was the will of Heaven that he remain. God would no doubt preserve his health and safety if he followed God's will by staying, as opposed to acting contrary to God's intentions for him.
His brother, however, frightened him with stories about others who had acted similarly. The narrator once again felt like he should leave the city, especially as he noticed rates of infection around him rising rapidly.
One evening H.F. walked home in the isolated streets and tried to "resolve first, what was my Duty to do, and I stated the Arguments with which my Brother had press'd me to go into the Country, and I set against them the strong Impressions which I had on my Mind for staying..." He cried out for the Lord to direct him, and to his surprise, he happened to land on a page of the Bible that he had been flipping through that spoke of plague and pestilence and the Lord's protection for those who trusted in Him. From that moment on, the narrator resolved to remain in London and trust in God to protect him and deliver him from the plague.
It was not a pleasant time to have a cold, as the narrator personally experienced, for people assumed one had the plague if they complained about any ill health. Indeed, the narrator started to believe himself afflicted with that horrible disease, but after a few days he grew healthy again.
In July deaths from the plague persisted, but most were confined to the out-parishes, which were fuller with the poor. The city was largely unscathed at this time. The narrator reports the deaths from the multiple parishes.
Through July he walked the streets and took care of business like normal, and visited his brother's house to which he had a key. He was impressed that no one had broken in and that people were not inclined to steal or behave immorally.
The plague began to infiltrate the city, and throughout August people fled in large numbers. The narrator was aware of how the whole face of London was altered; there was emptiness, sadness and sorrow on faces, etc. No one wore black to mourn their friends, however, but voices of lamentation rose throughout the streets at all hours. There were tears on nearly every face. The doors of houses were shut up, and the narrator recounted how he would walk along streets and see no one. Whole rows of houses were abandoned. The plague was intermittent for a while in the city, and people's hopes and fears ebbed and flowed. Many wealthy people from the West End continued to flee, but most of townspeople stayed to weather the storm.
The narrator commented how London at this time was high in population due to several events from the past decade; he wrote that the "Plague entered London, when an incredible Increase of People had happened occasionally..."
A Journal of the Plague Year occupies a strange place somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. The narrator is a fictional character but Defoe based his work on a multitude of historical sources. Many of the anecdotes, stories, and rumors were facts gleaned from research. Later analyses will deal with this subject in a more thorough manner, but readers should be aware at the outset of the work that it crosses genres and has generally posed problems for scholars who seek to puzzle out what it true, what is embellished, and what is false.
When the Journal begins, the narrator (whose name is revealed at the end to be 'H.F.') tells of the rumor that the plague had spread from Holland. Amsterdam recorded 9,752 plague deaths in 1663 and more than twice that number in 1664. H.F. lived in Aldgate, territory well known to Defoe, who was married in the parish church of Aldgate, St. Boltolph. H.F. technically lived outside of the City Walls and Whitechapel Bars limits of London. His interest in topography is a significant component of the text.
Almost immediately the infamous "Bills of Mortality" are introduced. The bills kept track of the burials and baptisms in their parishes; the Company of Parish Clerks were responsible for the papers. They were quite unreliable, and H.F. refers to them as problematic multiple times throughout the text. They only recorded the births and deaths of the members of the Church of England, not Catholics or Dissenters. Government officials had motivations to keep the bills lower, and the people often read them erroneously in that, when the numbers of dead from the plague dipped lower, they felt that conditions had improved and thus went about like before and unwittingly spread the plague farther. H.F. also understood that it was difficult to keep track of the dead when the numbers rose to extreme heights, especially in August and September.
While much of the Journal deviates from a traditional narrative in that it is oftentimes haphazard, contradictory, and nonlinear, there is the central story of H.F. He is writing his memories and recollections of his time in London during the 1665-66 plague, detailing his anguished back-and-forth decision to quit or stay in the city and how he adapted to life in a time of plague. In these early pages he provides a bit of background information about himself – he was a saddler, unmarried, and had a few servants – and discusses his brother's fleeing of the city and his request that H.F. come along as well. H.F. was loath to flee and initially refused to do so, but his brother's warnings swayed him. After he could not procure a horse he decided to remain, especially because he felt that he could not ignore what God wanted of him, but after his brother frightened him once more he decided to depart. He vacillated more, however, and finally, by coming across what he perceived to be a prophetic text in the Bible, he resolved to stay in London.
Bibliomancy (using sacred books for divination) was controversial during Defoe's day. While the idea that one could be inspired by a biblical passage was sound, "arbitrarily selecting a passage from the Bible might also be a usurpation of divine prerogative; the practice could result in a man's choosing or accepting only that which is in accord with his own will," as the scholar Everett Zimmerman writes in an article on the Journal. H.F. lights upon a few verses in the 91st Psalm, traditionally thought to be written by David during a plague. Problematically, he only refers to a few verses and omits others that might sway his determination to remain and its foundation of surety in God's command for him. Zimmerman poses a question: "Is H.F. to be commended for his trust in God or is he wrongfully presuming on God's mercy?" H.F.'s decision to stay is one that vexes him throughout the novel.