A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year Themes


The Journal is rife with stories of human suffering, both physical and psychological. Readers cannot help but be affected by the pervasive and continuous examples of despair, pain, and grief. In regards to physical suffering, Defoe concentrates on the terrible pain of the swellings on the afflicted person's body. These swellings would grow so hard and taut that they could not be burst by normal exertions; people frantically tried to burst them by stabbing or burning them. Sometimes the pain was so excruciating that people ran about the streets, crazed and screaming. Others committed suicide. In regards to psychological suffering, parents grieved for their dead children and children yearned for their parents. Infants nursed at the breasts of their dead mothers, or mothers watched their children die in their arms. Many people could not work and had to endure starvation. The shutting up of houses added to the despair, for people could not handle being imprisoned in their houses of death. The inscrutability of the plague, and the inability to know how it was spread or how to protect oneself from it, made people frenzied and insane.

Humanity in the face of tragedy

The Journal is a collection of anecdotes, stories, recollections, and rumors given by a narrator who is also relating his own experiences during the plague. H.F. does not focus only on the morbid, the peculiar, and the immoral; he directs most of his attention to the remarkable examples of charity, generosity, compassion, mercy, and humanity evinced by the people of London during a time of immense tribulation and despair. While he does admit that some of the more awful stories might possibly be true, he does not believe that they were as widespread as some believed. He prefers to focus on the ways in which Londoners found meaning in their suffering, how they alleviated the suffering of others, how they turned to God and gave sincere confessions of sin, and how they genuinely grieved for their loved ones. They did not form mobs or completely disintegrate into chaos. They did not completely abandon their faith in God or their virtue. They triumphed over a terrible catastrophe through strength of will, endurance, and patience.

Compassion for the poor

Normally in times of great unrest and widespread chaos, the poor people are looked upon with fear and derision owing to their propensity to erupt into disorder and rebellion. Indeed, many writers on the plague expressed their disapproval of the teeming masses and the fear that the poor could not control themselves in the face of turmoil. Defoe, however, refuses to take this path; his narrator demonstrates tremendous compassion and sympathy for the poor people of London. He laments that many of their livelihoods were affected by the plague and that they could barely feed their families. H.F. is moved by the boatman's efforts to support his afflicted wife and child by any means necessary; so much so that he gives the man his own money. He defends the poor from the rumors that they were prone to mobs. Although frustrated with their ignorance, he is largely sympathetic to their engagement with fortunetellers and quack doctors. Overall, he makes it clear that he understands their plight and does not blame them for any slight obstruction of justice (as with attacking the watchmen) or disruption of social mores (such as running about the street naked).

The inscrutability of the plague

The plague was perplexing in nearly all of its particulars to those who lived through it in 1665 London. The explanations of its origins were mere rumors, and it was difficult to know exactly how it entered the city. How it spread was also a matter of speculation; some people believed it was by breath, others believed it was through contact with a sick person's bedding or clothing. Doctors were unsure how to tell whether or not a person was sick, how long they had been sick, and what was the best way to cure them. Often the sick did not know they were afflicted until it was too late, and thus many people spread the plague unknowingly. Sometimes people dropped dead in the middle of the street, unaware of their plight until the hour of their death. H.F. listed several theories on how to ascertain whether or not someone was ill; these often tended toward the ridiculous, such as asking someone to breathe on an egg and noting that if it turned rotten, that person was ill. People disagreed about the degree of human cause compared with divine cause. Many simply concluded that the plague came directly from God and was meant to be a form of divine retribution. As for how to protect oneself from the plague, theories abounded. One person kept garlic in their mouth at all times, another doused their head in vinegar. No one knew how to avoid spreading the plague to their relations; towards the end of the plague many simply gave up trying to be careful since there was no way to feel certain that one's actions were helpful. Thus, the inscrutability of the plague added to its menace.

The streets of London

Defoe's Journal is street-centered. There are dozens and dozens of references to actual streets, and many critics have concentrated upon H.F.'s perambulations throughout the rich topographical landscape. The Journal presents readers with a narrative snapshot of London in 1665. Streets were often named for the professions which inhabited them, and knowing street names often meant knowing what would actually be around the next corner. Navigating these streets could sometimes be tricky, as there were no real maps for people to guide themselves about the city. There were no numbers or lights, and little air or space. H.F. knows his London extremely well; one of the first pieces of information he gives about himself is where he lives. Throughout the Journal he traverses the streets, not looking for an escape but trying to track the progress of the plague. Thus, the novel is, as Cynthia Wall writes in her introduction to the Penguin edition of the text, "a chronicle of street space, of the ways streets link and separate, offer escape and threaten death." H.F. may know the streets he walks upon, but each day brings fresh, new horrors in those familiar places. The streets that are designed for passage now present obstacles and threats. The plague has thus deformed the city and turned the London denizen's familiar byways into strange paths of terror and disorder.

The limitations of authority

Even though H.F. praises the city officials for trying to stem the plague by issuing Orders, as well as not allowing dead bodies to pile up in the streets or let the people go hungry, he still recognizes the limits of their authority. For one, he questions the accuracy of the bills of mortality; he speculates that the actual number of dead is much greater than the figure released. He notes that doctors, traditionally respected figures of authority, either flee the plague or cannot proffer any real advice on how to avoid the plague or how to be cured of it. Parents lose their authority when they cannot care for their families or violate the codes of duty and honor inherent in their roles. Fake doctors and theologians test the limits of authority when they claim to have a monopoly on truth but turn out to be frauds. H.F. also articulates the breakdown of authority when it comes to the shutting up of houses, for people found a myriad of ways to disobey orders: they bribed the watchmen, threatened or harmed them, snuck out of windows and doors, and lied to city officials about the relative health or sickness of people within. The city's greatest plan to combat the plague was essentially a failure. Thus, although authority does not break down completely, there are conspicuous assaults on it throughout the plague.


H.F. is a devout man and his piety colors the Journal. He takes great pains to express the faithfulness the common Londoner exhibits in the face of the plague. In addition to discussing his own prayer and repentance, he happily reports an increased attendance in church. H.F. is moved by sincere shows of faith; for example, he rewards Robert's trust in God's will with shillings for his family. H.F. discusses at length his decision to remain in London despite his brother's urgings to flee. He asks God whether or not he should stay and, consulting his Bible, he finds a passage that he believes speaks to his own dilemma. Ultimately, he leaves it up to God to preserve his safety. Defoe's narrator uses references to many Bible passages to draw parallels and comparisons to London in the time of the plague - Jonah's prophesying the destruction of Nineveh to comment on omens; a verse from John 5:40 to criticize the negative tenor of religious services; the children of Israel's selective praise following their deliverance from the Pharaoh to explain the attitude of the Londoners who survived the plague. Though he commends the virtue of the people during the plague, H.F. is disappointed afterwards, as the returning Londoners renew their prejudices concerning religion. Before the outbreak, religion in England was fractured; Presbyterians, Independents and Dissenters practiced separately from and, sometimes, in opposition to The Church of England. As the plague raged, however, worshippers from all sects "flocked without distinction". The end of the plague revived old lines of division.