A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year Summary and Analysis of "It is true, that the next Year made them full amends by another terrible Calamity upon the City..." to the End of the Novel


Trade was boosted immeasurably following the end of the plague and the great fire, as manufacturing was spurred to reproduce the goods that had been destroyed.

In September, Dr. Heath informs H.F. that it looked likely that the plague was coming to an end. Even though the bills of mortality remained high and people continued to die every day, the infection was taking much longer to kill people and many more of the afflicted were recovering than before. The physician hoped that the infection had passed its crisis. The bills began to reflect this as a reality; each week the number dead dipped a bit lower.

Unfortunately, as Londoners began to observe that the distemper was abating, they began acting carelessly. They believed they were out of harm's way and began to run about in public and not pay attention to whom they associated with. Two bills that came out in this time revealed the numbers stagnant, not decreasing; the narrator believed the decrease was cancelled out by those newly afflicted due to their carelessness. Physicians printed up directions warning the people not to be so reckless. However, many went about their business, opened their shops, conversed in the streets, and generally returned to their normal way of life.

Others who had fled the distemper now saw that it was fine to return, and flocked back in London. This influx of people acting rashly raised the bills of mortality for a time. Thankfully, though, cold weather set in and the distemper continued to fade. The city seemed full of people again.

The narrator hoped that the people would be different on account of surviving the terrible plague. While there were some that sincerely thanked God for their deliverance, most acted no differently than before. Some were hardened by the danger they were in, and acted more immorally.

The plague spread to towns outside of London, and the city dwellers tried to be mindful of who they associated with, although they could not prohibit the country dwellers from coming into the city. The poor had a more difficult time as the plague began to die down, for the "Sluces of general Charity were now shut..." Foreign trade was also diminished, even though the plague was lessening. The narrator writes of the conversion of old burying grounds for other purposes. Sometimes the bodies were disturbed before the flesh had dried on their bones.

The physicians and clergymen who left their patients and flocks at the height of the distemper were mocked and criticized as they made their way back into the city. In regards to the religious conflicts that had disappeared as the plague raged, they unfortunately returned as it faded. The narrator was not exceedingly critical of those physicians and clergymen who vanished, for "A Plague is a formidable Enemy, and is arm'd with Terrors, that every Man is not sufficiently fortified to resist, or prepar'd to stand the Shock against..." Many civil officers, constables, headboroughs, lord mayor's and sheriff's men died in the line of their work.

The narrator explains that he did not personally fault the physicians; during the plague his very good friend Doctor Heath faced an angry populace because there was no cure. All anyone could do was carry something sweet-smelling to disguise the noxious smells in the city streets - as H.F. himself had done. The quacks and mountebanks had vanished and did not return after the plague ceased and H.F. assumes most perished.

The cold weather of February continued to bring about the plague's demise. The learned as well as the ignorant wondered how they ought to restore the houses of the sick. Many aired out the rooms or perfumed them heavily, while others lit fires. Some of the less intelligent folk accidentally set fire to their homes. Of course, the great fire itself would end up leveling the town anyway and negating the need for a cleanse.

The rich returned much more slowly to the city than the poor did; because they had the means to do so, they preferred to wait out the last vestiges of the plague.

The narrator truly believed that it was divine Providence that had delivered the city. There was clearly no earthly cure; "Nothing, but the immediate Finger of God, nothing, but omnipotent Power could have done it; the Contagion despised all Medicine, Death rag'd in every Corner," and finally, "that very Moment it pleased God, with a most agreeable Surprize, to cause the Fury of it to abate..." There never was any cure found, or any new methods or medicines discovered. Those of religious bent had to concede that it was God who stopped the plague, and those other townspeople could provide no other reason for the cessation of the distemper.

Many people were truly thankful for their deliverance. The town began to return to normal, and the sight of a person in the street with bandages or a lame leg or a cloth around his neck caused no consternation. Unfortunately, the narrator notes that the bad habits and immoral actions of the people returned, and he compared them to the Children of Israel who saw the Egyptians drowned: "they sang his Praise, but they soon forgot his Works."

As for the narrator, who signs the initials "H.F." to the end of the text, he includes a "coarse but sincere Stanza of [his] own": "A dreadful Plague in London was,/In the Year Sixty Five,/Which swept an Hundred Thousand Souls/Away; yet I alive!"


In this last section, the plague finally comes to an end. People begin returning to their normal lives. H.F. is spared. Those who fled the city return, opening up shop, and conversing with their friends and neighbors again. Trade with the outside world resumed, albeit slowly. Those who appeared sick were no longer shunned. Unfortunately, H.F. had hoped that people would be thankful for their deliverance and act differently once the plague left the city, but this was not the case. While many were grateful and tried to change their way of living, most people returned to their former way of life and state of mind. Some even acted more immorally once the plague left, perhaps since they could now do so without fearing death. H.F.'s consternation concerning the return of selfish, wicked ways is an aspect of Defoe's purpose in writing the Journal; he believed people needed to be more thankful for their deliverance and act in a more rational manner. As an instructive tool rooted in historical fact, the Journal provides practical advice for people who may face a plague in the future; leave the city, be cautious when conversing with the well, revise attitudes towards the shutting up of houses; ensure provisions are plenty, etc. As a work of fiction grounded in true stories, Defoe's work can serve as a lesson for humanity; charity and morality are necessary survival tools, in times of plague and health.

The question of whether or not the work can truly be classified as fiction can be addressed again at the novel's close. Scholar Manuel Schonhorn takes up this subject in his article on the topographical references of Defoe's work, beginning by noting that critics have often been inclined to consider the work as faithful to the historical record or praise it merely for its inventiveness. Evidence does reveal that many of the stories H.F. relates were anecdotal, apocryphal, or mythological. Schonhorn preferred to look at the topographical aspect of the Journal, discussing how Defoe, writing decades after the plague took place, was faced with a London that had seen striking changes due to the great fire as well as normal rebuilding and alterations. Defoe needed to be able to stand the scrutiny of someone who was reading the Journal and remembered London during the plague of 1665. Schonhorn writes that "parish boundaries had been revised, theatres rebuilt, and churches destroyed; some temporary names applied descriptively had gone out of fashion, and others had come into use."

H.F. often refers to the past with "then" as opposed to "now" in his narration to help the reader distinguish. Similarly, "his arguments for civic reform and better plague-control, deduced from lessons of the past in language appropriate to the present, shows his public concern and narrows the gap between his time and the reader's." Defoe referenced major landmarks and conspicuous objects from 1665 London to bring the reader back, and Schonhorn can only identify seven of ninety references with the possibility of error. Even though his topographical references touch on all parts of London, Defoe concentrates them in two major areas – H.F.'s parish of St. Botolph, Aldgate, much information of which was no doubt provided by his uncle, Henry Foe; and the parish of St. Stephen, Coleman Street, where evidence reveals Defoe's father, and thus Defoe himself, had lived for several years. Since Defoe was "sensibly restricting his topographical particulars to the northern and eastern outskirts of London, to those parts without the old walls which had escaped the Fire, and within the City to sections he knew from boyhood experiences, Defoe was obviously reducing his chances for error."

Defoe also "fictionalized" his work by tempering or moderating the responses of Londoners to the plague, often apologizing for people's actions and flattering the work of city officials. He was clearly concluding that human nature was not rooted in evil or essentially corrupt; this "refusal to condemn, this tempering of any adverse judgment of the populace and authorities, is the most characteristic quality of the Journal." The Journal stands as a remarkable piece of writing – whether fact or fiction or a combination thereof – that highlights the best aspects of human nature and presents itself as a testimony to the virtues of charity, mercy, and endurance that human beings possessed in a time of great tragedy and trial.