A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year Quotes and Analysis

These things serve to shew, how far the People were really overcome with Delusions; and as they had a Notion of the Approach of a Visitation, all their Predictions run upon a most dreadful Plague...

H.F., 25

The rumors of the plague spread without the help of any newspaper or official sources; it was said that the plague had come to Holland. The people looked anxiously to the bills of mortality to confirm their suspicions, and also began to turn to alternative forms of divining whether or not the plague was imminent. H.F. is intensely critical of the people who turned to fortunetellers, mountebanks, astrologers, and philosophers. These people - most of them from the poorer parts of the city - also read into the sight of a comet as an omen of the plague. They began to see spirits and apparitions and have strange dreams of angels holding swords. Without official ways in which to identify the plague's arrival, characteristics, and ways in which to combat it, the people of London were nearly pre-modern in their responses. They did not do what they should have done when rumors of plague surfaced - run away or stock up on provisions. Instead, as H.F. laments, they gave their money to quack doctors and fortunetellers and suppressed rational thought for a time.

Many Consciences were awakened; many hard Hearts melted into Tears; many a penitent Confession was made of Crimes long concealed...

H.F., 34

One of the more positive results of the plague returning to London was that it made many people aware of their shortcomings and sins. A religious man himself and quite prone to feelings of guilt and uncertainty, H.F. lauds the embrace of religion he sees in many of his fellow denizens. He notes that the people no longer cared about the religious breaches that existed before the plague, and that they went to hear any preacher they liked without fear of criticism. They confessed their sins and called for forgiveness and mercy from their maker. This was, as H.F. believed, an appropriate response to the plague. He was disappointed, then, when he observed that many Londoners forgot about their "sincere" confessions of sin and returned to their immoral ways once the plague had subsided. He commended those that were truly grateful for their deliverance and sought to live by new standards of conduct. H.F.'s opinion on this issue no doubt derives from his understanding that the plague was sent from God (although he recognizes it did have a human component) and should be regarded as an instrument of His will and, quite possibly, His wrath.

...in short, the shutting up of Houses, was in no wise to be depended upon; neither did it answer the End at all; serving more to make the People desperate, and drive them to such Extremities, as that, they would break out at all Adventures.

H.F., 53

No other subject discussed by H.F. is given the same amount of focus as the shutting up of houses. The topic elicits contradiction, vacillation, and confusion. H.F. does indeed believe that the city government was wise to shut up the infected, but he muses about whether or not it should be voluntary. Of course, as voluntary shutting of houses would have done little to stem the flow of the plague, he was left back at the beginning of his train of thoughts. This quote reveals H.F.'s most assertive mood, as he declares that the shutting up of houses simply did not work. His Journal presents a multitude of anecdotes about masters of the house refusing to tell city officials of sick family members; people bribing watchmen to escape or engaging in violent altercations with them; sneaking out of houses through unwatched doors and windows; and many dead from being confined with a sick person. All of these reasons, coupled with the psychological trauma that resulted from forced confinement led to H.F.'s conclusion that this was a deleterious and useless practice. However, throughout the text H.F. grapples with this question and cannot seem to rest on one opinion on the matter. This is a very human aspect of H.F., and suggests how difficult it is for anyone to come to terms with the plague.

...and many Families foreseeing the Approach of the Distemper, laid up Stores of Provisions, sufficient for their whole Families, and shut themselves up, and that so entirely, that they were neither seen or heard of, till the Infection was quite ceased...

H.F., 55

As the Journal was meant to provide advice and counsel to a 1722 London which may see another outbreak of plague, this particular quote expresses one of the two best strategies for surviving the plague. The first was to run away from it, and the second, expressed here, was to shore up enough provisions for the duration of the plague and shut up one's family inside their home. No one could leave and no one could come in. Any contact with an outside person threatened the sanctuary of health within the home. The people of London who did this almost always emerged from the plague unscathed. This practice, however, was easier said than done. H.F. admits that not even he had enough provisions and had to venture out or send his servants to replenish his supplies. Poorer people had a more difficult time hording enough provisions. He also admitted that he could not bear to remain indoors for days on end, and broke his resolutions often and went walking about the city. This quote demonstrates precisely why the shutting up of houses was so difficult; having enough food and supplies and mentally preparing oneself for total isolation were very unrealistic expectations, even though they could save lives.

...they turned their Anger into Ridiculing the Man, and his Sorrow for his Wife and Children; taunted him with want of Courage to leap into the great Pit, and go to heaven, as they jeeringly express'd it, along with them, adding some very profane , and even blasphemous Expressions.

H.F., 63-4

H.F. distinguishes between appropriate responses to the plague - mourning, crying, trying to escape the city, confessing one's sins to God - and the inappropriate ones. The latter are exemplified by the men who H.F. meets at Pye Tavern. These men do not indulge in grief or emotion; rather, they virulently blaspheme and mock God, and verbally torment their brethren by laughing at their grief and urging them to take their own lives. H.F. is enraged by their behavior, especially when they turn their attention to him. He is shocked that they are so bold in their words concerning God, and is somewhat unsurprised when every last one of them falls prey to the plague. Surely, H.F. reasons, God would not tolerate that level of blasphemy. Of course, to the modern reader, the men's responses, while cruel in their treatment of grieving people, are clearly manifestations of their own fear and despair. Their response to the plague was not to confess their sins or to cry bitterly; they found it more consoling to rage against this unknowable, insurmountable tragedy. H.F. is not sympathetic, but the tale of these men is only slightly less affecting than others in the work.

People in the Rage of the Distemper, or in the Torments of their Swellings, which were indeed intollerable, running out of their own Government, raving and distracted, and oftentimes laying violent Hands upon themselves, throwing them out at their Windows, shooting themselves, &c. Mothers murthering their own Children, in their Lunacy, some dying of meer Grief as a Passion, some of meer Fright and Surprize, without any Infection at all; others frighted into Idiotism, and foolish Distractions, some into dispair and Lunacy; others into mellancholy Madness.

H.F., 79

Defoe is not particularly graphic in his description of the physical aspect of the plague, but he does convey its overwhelming painfulness through passages on the swellings. These swellings grew hard and taut and could rarely be broken. If they were broken the person had a likelier chance of surviving, but this did not happen often. Instead, people went crazy with the pain and the despair of not being able to ameliorate their suffering. This quote is evocative of how the plague could literally sever an afflicted person's connection to rationality: people went insane, murdered their children, committed suicide, sank into deep depression, or died of grief. Here Defoe is able to articulate just how awful the plague is; he leaves off from the stories of heroism, charity, and endurance, and focuses on the sheer horror of this affliction. It is a ghastly passage that evokes the chaos and terror of Hell.

It must be acknowledg'd that the absent Citizens, who, tho' they were fled for Safety into the Country, were yet greatly interested in the Welfare of those who they left behind, forgot not to contribute liberally to the Relief of the Poor...

H.F., 90

Throughout the Journal H.F. attempts to praise the citizens of London for their endurance and fortitude during one of the greatest disasters to befall the city in its long history. Defoe does not write about Londoners the way his contemporaries did, fearing the mobs and lamenting the disorderly masses of poor people. He is sympathetic and compassionate, and is quick to debunk rumors or question the validity of certain assumptions regarding the behavior of people during the plague. In particular, he commends Londoners for their charitable impulses, noting that without the contributions of the middle class and the rich, the poor people would have no doubt starved. Many people had to live off of charity alone when their trades were suspended in the onset of the distemper; these included many types of domestic servants and men who worked on the waterfront and in trading. This charitable, Christian response to tragedy backs up H.F.'s assertion that the city was not descended into anarchy and immorality - the desire to help one's fellow man was alive and well.

If I may be allowed to give my Opinion, by what I saw with my Eyes, and heard from other People that were Eye Witnesses, I do verily believe the same, viz. that there died, at least, 100000 of the Plague only...

H.F., 97

In this passage H.F. articulates that he is a bit wary of the official numbers dead reported through government documents; based on his own surmising and discussions with other eyewitnesses, he believes the official estimation of about 68,000 dead is short by over 30,000. With this assertion comes the understanding that many of the "official" government statements, as with the bills of mortality, were perhaps unreliable. H.F. notes that people often lied about their family members and delayed telling officials when they died, and the city government itself had a vested interest in keeping the numbers somewhat low, both to encourage foreign trade and to keep citizens from becoming even more anxious and crazed. Official documents and records were looked on with some skepticism at this time; there were no newspapers and word of the plague traveled orally. By the time Defoe was writing, however, newspapers had gained a new level of validity and ubiquity. He is thus calling attention to the want of real, official information and simultaneously upholding the value of the informal way of transmitting information through orality or private memorandum. After all, H.F.'s narrative stands as a much more informative and helpful text than bills of mortality or pamphlets on surviving the plague.

...they rather went to the Grave by Thousands than into the Fields in Mobs by Thousands...

H.F., 124-25

It is clear that plague brings disorder. Citizens run through the street naked, crying out the God is enacting vengeance upon the city. Mothers are accused of murdering their children, nurses are accused of hurrying their patients' deaths. People cast themselves into burial pits or commit suicide due to their pain and grief. They leave behind the bodies of their loved ones and commit violence against the watchmen told to guard their houses. They blaspheme and mock God, or pour out their deepest, darkest confessions of sin. Despite all of these examples of disorder, however, what is not observed is a full-scale mob. H.F. is keen to point out that the poor people of London did not rise up in rebellion as a manifestation of their fear and distress; they did not threaten city authorities or ravage nearby towns or break into the houses of the rich. Rather, they died in great numbers instead of rebelling in great numbers. This was one thing that Defoe needed to assert about the people of London, especially as the eyes of the world were upon it. Defoe endeavored to portray a resilient, enduring, and mostly rational London. Rumors of mobs were quite clearly rejected by H.F. in his narrative.

London may be a Pattern to all the Cities in the World for the good Government and the excellent Order that was every where kept, even in the time of the most violent Infection...

H.F., 149

Similar to the above quote, Defoe desires to present a picture of London during the plague that is characterized by endurance, resilience, morality, and rationality. His narrator relates far more stories of charity and humanity than ones of sordidness and immorality. He rejects rumors of misconduct and mob-like behavior on the part of Londoners, and commends city officials for their swiftness in burying the dead, discernible humility, and willingness to keep supplies of food high for the poor and hungry citizens. All in all, London during the plague of 1665 is meant to be an example to cities worldwide of how to conduct itself during a time of immense tribulation. Defoe's motivations for writing this book, as historians claim, was to support the government of Horace Walpole and to inspire national pride for the character of Londoners. All of these reasons are validated by the Journal's clear message that the city did not collapse in on itself and indeed was a testament to the human capacity to endure.