It seemed to the narrator as if the shutting up of houses did more harm than good because it caused immeasurable grief to families but could not meet its goal of preventing the spread of the plague. As he was currently employed as an alderman and went to houses inquiring whether or not the inhabitants were sick, he knew the shortcomings of the measure firsthand. The aldermen could not actually go into the houses to ascertain the state of health, but had to seek answers from the neighbors.
Many times the master of the house evaded the law and did not inform the officials when someone in his house fell ill. Only when they dropped dead in the street were their conditions revealed. Physicians who looked at the dead bodies discovered that people did not truly drop dead instantly without any forewarning; rather, the signs of the distemper were upon them for some time, yet undiscovered.
Another problem with inquiring as to the health of houses was that neighbors often colluded with or lied for one another. The narrator was thankful that he managed to only hold his position for three weeks. He and his neighbors agreed that the shutting up of houses as it was done was deleterious, but that, "a Method to have removed the Sound from the Sick in Case of a particular House being visited, wou'd ha' been much more reasonable on many Accounts, leaving no Body with the sick Persons, but such as shou'd on such Occasions request to stay and declare themselves content to be shut up with them."
As the plague spread, it seemed more and more useless to shut up houses. Just like the fire the following year, the plague spread furiously and without abatement, devouring everything in its wake. People began to give up their endeavors to extinguish it. People began to despair that they could ever outlive and outlast the plague.
The narrator laments that there was no worse sight than a man running naked in the streets in his despair, followed by his wife and children. This was grievous to him. The whole aspect of the city was frightful – it was empty, lonely, and melancholy. The last few months of September were the worst yet; it was reported that nearly 3000 died in one night. Houses were left empty. Bodies needed to be buried but there was nobody to give notice to the sexton or the buriers.
As people began to despair of escaping the plague, a strange thing happened: they were no longer afraid to socialize with each other, and came out into the street and intermingled. They went to church together and sat in the same pews. They did not care who delivered their sermons, and indeed, many of the religious breaches that had occurred in the years prior were forgotten. Animosities between people, the Church, and dissenters vanished. The narrator comments that, "'tis evident Death will reconcile us all, on the other Side the Grave we shall be all Brethren again."
The narrator tells more tales of horror and woe, such as a man tying himself to his bed and lighting himself on fire to escape the pain of his affliction. H.F. brings up his concern for his own safety, again wondering why he had not fled with his brother. He stayed indoors for days on end, but finally could bear it no longer and went outside into the streets. He saw dismal things occur in London each day.
H.F. notes the welcome absence of fortunetellers, astrologers, predictors, conjurors, etc. Perhaps they had all died or maybe they simply went away, but at the plague's height they were certainly gone.
September was the worst month London had seen. Almost 40,000 were said to have died, although the narrator thought that number too low by far. There was simply no way to count every single one of the dead. H.F. commends the magistrates of the city in their upholding of two key duties within London and the suburbs: first, they kept up a store of provisions and the prices did not go too high; and no body was left unburied or uncovered, except for a short amount of time in the first three weeks of September. The narrator also notes that the price of bread did not rise drastically during the plague, and, moreover, the supply of bread did not dwindle.
As for pest-houses, there were two, but they were not commonly used. It cost money upon arrival or departure, and many could not get there. Those who did often remained healthy; only a few hundred were said to have died there. The narrator believed there should have been more but did not want people to be forced to go there. The magistrates may have shut up the houses, but "they would have found it impracticable to have gone the other way to Work; for they could never have forced the sick People out of their Beds and out of their Dwellings..."
Much has been made of Defoe's writing style in this piece – his inclusion of statistics, data, bills of mortality, etc. The structure of the work combined with the understanding that Defoe based his work off of actual history and fact from documents and personal reminiscences leads to the question of whether or not this work can truly be categorized as fiction. Scholar Nicholas Seager takes up this question in his influential article on the Journal, writing that he believed Defoe was trying to demonstrate the limits of statistics. He delves into the fact that the "fictional details, H.F.'s stories, supply a greater truth, more representative of the experience of plague, than the quantified facts against which they are set." H.F. uses his writings to remind readers that the plague could not be encapsulated by numbers and facts but instead by the tales of human suffering and perseverance.
Seager begins by explaining that Defoe shared John Locke's beliefs that numerical and verbal signs could not really convey the knowledge of how things actually were; only experience could do this. H.F. often points out the limitations of the bills of mortality, noting that the administrators cared more about burying bodies than counting them, that searchers were bribed and thus dead bodies were ignored, and that some of the searchers – who were old poor women – could not be exact in their counting. H.F. even ventures to offer a higher body count of 100,000 as opposed to the lower one proffered by the city. Defoe absolutely "injects ambivalence into texts that aspire to certainty, namely here the Bills of Mortality."
In preparation for this novel Defoe spent several months studying the bills. They had been reprinted when word came of the Marseilles plague in 1721, but Defoe had gotten hold of them nearly ten years earlier. Defoe became convinced that the bills could not be entirely exact. In February of 1722 he published Due Preparations for the Plague, in which he criticized the bills and made it clear, as Seager writes, that "statistics can neither account for nor supply an account of what happened. They should certainly not be used to govern conduct." This problem comes to the fore in the Journal as well, for when the bills begin to show a slight downturn in the amount dead from the plague the people immediately think they are safe and begin adjusting their behavior back to pre-plague conditions, thus spreading the plague once more.
The reality of the plague is truly illustrated in the stories of individuals with whom H.F. comes into either direct or indirect contact with. Seager writes, "throughout the book, H.F. increasingly homes in on individuals and their experiences of plague...[a] potentially fictitious story...tells a greater truth, one about Londoners' resilience and resourcefulness in the face of disaster." The stories of the man who lost his whole family and grieved at the Pye Tavern; Robert the Boatman who supported his family; and many others of grieving families rend the heart of the reader. H.F. does include many apocryphal stories, but takes pains to indicate that they may or may not be true. Of course, "some of the stories whose probability must be gauged are fairly fantastic, such as that of a man whose 'insupportable sorrow' at the death of his family causes his head to permanently retract into his body". While these tales are a tad absurd, they nonetheless convey the personal reality of the plague moreso than numbers and data.
Defoe includes more tales and urban legends as the novel progresses, such as the story of the man who furiously ran into the Thames and thus burst his swellings and survived. Seager observes that it is perhaps a subtle development, but that Defoe is moving from a "literal and absolute version of truth towards a fictional and representative one." It does not matter if some of the stories are fantastic and improbable because they signify a greater truth. Seager concludes, on the topic of the Journal's role as fact or fiction, that the work "endorses fiction, validating a version of honesty that admits the unattainability of absolute truth, dismantling texts that aspire to such certainty."
It should be noted that H.F. again takes pains to commend the Lord Mayor and the magistrates for maintaining order. He points out that provisions had been both plenty and affordable; for the most part, bodies are covered or buried in a timely fashion; and bread does not rise dramatically in price nor does supply dwindle. Both chaos and opportunism are avoided by their competence. This mirrors the behavior of the Londoners themselves, who, in the throes of despair at the height of the plague, begin to act more humanely towards one another. Despite the odd rumor of cruelty - that H.F. dispels as specious - the plague brings out the best in most people.