A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year Summary and Analysis of "I give this Story thus at large..." to "This might be sufficient to convince any reasonable Person..."


The narrator explains that he related the story of the three men and their group because he wanted to make it known why so many people came into London after the plague had abated - they had escaped into the forest and woods. Many left London and tried to go as far away as possible and those who had money escaped the farthest. Many of the poor tried to get into barns, sheds, outhouses, and other shelters in the country and wait out the plague. As previously mentioned, many tried to live in boats and ships on the water.

The people in towns close to London were accused of cruelty to the citizens from London on account of not wanting them to spread the plague there as well. However, the narrator notes many instances of charity and kindness and stories of relief and assistance. The towns themselves often became inflicted with the plague, and the narrator includes bills of mortality for them.

The narrator decides to address the question of whether or not infected persons truly did desire to infect others. He looks into some of the reasons why this might be the case; he concludes that some might have been infected with a "kind of Rage, and a hatred against their own Kind...", while others did it so as not to be infected while their peers went free, or even others did it unwittingly. Overall, the narrator did not grant these stories to be true. He knew that there were some instances of this cruelty, but that they were few.

In fact, he saw that "every thing was managed with so much Care, and such excellent Order was observ'd in the whole City and Suburbs, by the Care of the Lord Mayor and Aldermen...London may be a Pattern to all the Cities in the World for the good Government and excellent Order that was every where kept, even in the time of the most violent Infection..."

This was due to the moderation that officials showed in shutting up houses. The narrator conceded that there were difficulties in doing so, such as the depression and suffering of the people and the violence inflicted upon watchmen, but that the magistrates actually did a good job in moderating and convincing the families who had to be sequestered. Sometimes they provided the families with information about their sick relatives, or supplied them with food and other supplies. When there was a clash between an officer and the people, the magistrates often took the side of the people.

The narrator concludes that it is doubtful whether these measures and ordinances helped slow or stop infection, even the shutting up of houses. When the plague raged most violently, almost nothing could stop it. This was mostly due to the people who went about without knowing they were yet infected.

At this time the narrator experiences his own hardship – he was appointed the Alderman of Portsoken Watch and bitterly lamented it. He tried many arguments to be excused, but all that he could procure was a shortening of his tenure as alderman from two months to three weeks.

He returned to his ruinations on the shutting up of houses, remarking that one of the beneficial things about it was the prevention of diseased persons from running about in the streets. He tells a horrible tale of a gentlewoman who was attacked by a man who kissed her, then informed her that he had the plague. Terrified, she swooned and died not long after. It was never known whether or not the man had the plague. Another man burst into the home of a family and told them he had the plague. After a few crazed moments where the family looked at their intruder in horror, he departed, saying he would die at home. The family never knew what became of him.

The narrator heard of one man who ran out into the street and then down into the Thames; his violent swimming caused his swellings to burst and he was cured of the plague.

The shutting up of houses was a mournful experience for those stuck inside. The lamentations and cries of such people echoed in the streets. The magistrates did their best to try and stem the tide of those escaping from the houses, but they could only do so much. Despite the anger of the people, the shutting up of houses was necessary.

The narrator muses how lucky the city was that it did not have any terrible fires at the time. The people would have had to let everything burn.

Still, the narrator does not know how so many infected people still managed to be in the city streets despite the shutting up of houses. He surmises that, "it was impossible to discover every House that was infected as soon as it was so, or to shut up all the Houses that were infected..."


The shutting up of houses is one of H.F.'s preferred topics; he comes back to it repeatedly throughout the text, oftentimes contradicting himself on whether or not he agreed with the policy or thought it useful. He speaks of the shutting up of houses beginning in June, noting that it had been enforced before, during the plague of 1603. The Orders published by the Lord Mayor and Alderman specifically addressed this issue, appointing watchmen to keep watch over houses forcibly shut up when an infected person was found to lie there. Houses of the afflicted were marked with a red cross in the middle of the door and the inhabitants were not to come out. It was the master of the house's responsibility to inform city officials when someone within was ill. After including the Orders in full, H.F. comments, "This shutting up of houses was at first counted a very cruel and Unchristian Method, and the poor people so confin'd made bitter Lamentations..." (47).

H.F. details the problems with the shutting up of houses. Many people perished, not all of whom were ill when their house was locked. Others reacted violently and attacked the watchmen set to guard their homes. Many conceived of ways to trick the watchmen, who could not look after every window and door, and escaped back out into the city. And some masters refused to let city officials know right away when someone was sick so their house could remain open. H.F. writes, "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 dried them to such Extremities, as that, they would break out at all Adventures" (53). H.F. also observes that because people feared the shutting up of houses, they did not tell the officials and went about the city, accidentally infecting others if they themselves did not know they were sick.

H.F. sees that the shutting up of houses was "a great Subject of Discontent" (151) and concludes that, "It is doubtful to this day, whether in the whole it contributed anything to the stop of the Infection" (152) for all of the reasons listed above. He is annoyed when he has to become an alderman himself, and arranges to have his term shortened. However, he does concede that "it was authoriz'd by a law, it had the public Good in view, as the End chiefly aim'd at, and all the private Injuries that were done by the putting it in Execution, must be put to the account of the publick Benefit" (152). He also agrees that "it is true that shutting up of Houses had one Effect, which I am sensible was of Moment, namely, it confin'd the distemper'd People, who would otherwise have been both very troublesome and very dangerous in their running about Streets with the Distemper upon them, which when they were [delirious], they would have done in a most frightful manner..." (154). H.F. also realizes that not forcing houses to be shut up and replacing that order with pest-houses would be problematic since sick people would still be in public as they were transported. Thus, H.F. is quite contradictory on the subject of shutting up houses, although he does seem to lean towards the notion that it was ill-conceived.

H.F. is not only contradictory – he is repetitive and redundant. Defoe scholar Frank Ellis looks into Defoe's narrator's writing style, noting that "most annoying is the echolaic repetition of a nameless class of repetition-indicators" in past, present, and future. For example, Defoe refers to the past with things like "as has been said," as I said above," "as I have mentioned before," etc. He refers to the present with "I say I could wish," "I may say indeed," etc. He refers to the future with "of which I shall say more hereafter," "of this I shall speak by itself," "I shall have frequent Occasion to say more of by-and-by," etc. Ellis sees that Defoe's pace of repetition quickens as the plague gets worse throughout August and September; he sees "the substance as well as the accidents of Defoe's text weaves a crazy cobweb of repetition. Almost every detail is recounted at least twice."

Ellis is critical of this, observing that "this maddening repetition creates serious attention-deficit disorder for the reader" and that this repetition "seems to imply a lack of assurance in the writer, an unwillingness to let go of the reader..." Ellis tries to understand what precisely about the novel is appealing, especially in light of its difficult prose. It is clear that it is a record of the plague, albeit an imperfect and somewhat embellished one. What also draws readers to it is "Defoe's crabbed sense of humour, the historical ironies in the text, and of course Defoe's unpredictable imagination...[his] sense of humour is most frequently tickled by the mishaps of human life..." Ultimately, each reader can determine whether or not they believe the merits of the text outweigh the stylistic detractions.