A Journal of the Plague Year
The Plague Diaries of Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe: A Historical Overview
Autobiography has often been a response to moments of historical crisis. Diaries such as those of Anne Frank who wrote about the hardships of living in Nazi Germany as a Jew, the Bronte Sisters who wrote of the era in which they lived, and Nelson Mandela who recorded his life in prison on a desk calendar, have been found and have revealed insightful information on those events (Liddy, 2014; Pettinger, 2014). Among these famous diarists are the world renowned writers Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe, who both wrote on the events of The Great Plague of London which occurred in 1665. Pepys and Defoe approach the plague in contrasting manners. This can be seen through the way in which they recorded the event, their motive behind recording the event, the authentic details used throughout their texts, the manner in which their text addresses and affects the reader and lastly through their emotional responses to the plague seen in their texts. These differences in their texts occurred due to the fact that Pepys and Defoe have contrasting personalities and backgrounds; thus, their texts were informed by different premises despite similarities of historical situation.
The Great Plague of London was an epidemic which devastated London from 1665 until 1666; aplague is defined as, “an infectious disease spread by bacteria and causing fever and delirium, typically with the formation of buboes and sometimes infection of the lungs” (Oxford Dictionary , 2007). The Great Plague occurred due to the household and human waste discarded in the streets which caused poverty, filth and unsanitary conditions especially in the poorer, densely crowded areas of London. Rats, which thrived in these conditions, contributed to the rapid spread of the disease as they carried the fleas which were infected with plague (The National Archives, 2008) . The symptoms of the plague are characterized by a high fever, vomiting, headaches and swellings or buboes in the groin and armpits which eventually spread across the body. Death finally occurred due to a sneezing fit. Victims of the plague were often seen as delirious due to their speech being affected and their actions becoming uncoordinated and unpredictable (Trueman, 2011). The English Nursery Rhyme, “Ring, a-ring, o’rosies /A pocket full of posies/ Atishoo, atishoo/ We all fall down”, describes the symptoms of the plague where the “ring o’ rosies” refers to the buboes, “a pocket full of posies” refers to the flowers people carried around to mask the miasmas of the plague, “Atishoo” refers to the sneezing episode which eventually lead to death, “we all fall down” (Firth, 2012, p. 15). The deaths due to the plague were recorded and posted on a weekly basis in a public area in the form of the Bill of Mortality. The plague reached its peak in September of 1665 when there was an enormous increase in the weekly deaths, “7,000 people per week were dying in London alone.” (Firth, 2012, p. 14). Although the plague slowly diminished in 1666, it was the Great Fire of London which occurred in September 1666, which finally ended it. The fire sterilized the city, destroying all the filth and rats which had caused the plague to continuously re-emerge (Firth, 2012, p. 14).
The events of the plague were recorded in many documents such as medical records and personal writings such as those by Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe which provide subjective and descriptive interpretations of the plague and its effects. Samuel Pepys, an English diarist and politician, lived in London during the time of The Great Plague. Pepys was a well-educated man who attended Cambridge University and became successful due to his occupation as an administrator in the Navy and his position as the President of the Royal Society (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000; Stevenson, 1909–1917). His education, skills and high position in the Navy and in the Royal Society allowed him to advance rapidly in society and in his private life. Pepys became very wealthy early in life thus lived luxuriously as an upper-class citizen (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000, p. 542). His love of wealth, material goods and social status contributed to Pepys being described as shallow, self-absorbed, lustful and greedy. Pepys’ personality is defined by his pleasure-seeking nature, “the diary is a manifestation of Pepys’ character: he was a vain, naturally curious pleasure seeker” (Cannan, 2006, p. 214) . He sought pleasure in all aspects of his life such as food, theatre, people and women which is evident through his many affairs, “He’s a lover of music, he’s a lover of sex, he’s a lover of administration, he’s a lover of literature, he’s a lover of science.” (Timpson, 2010 ). He lust for and pleasure in accumulating money remained strong during the plague which is seen through Stevenson’s statement, “He stood well by his business in the appalling plague of 1666” (1909- 1917). This statement also shows how Pepys profited from the plague while others suffered thus, further justifying his selfishness and self-absorption. Pepys was a diarist for nine years, 1660 to 1669, who faithfully recorded the details of his personal life, interests and daily activities. This document provides a scientific interpretation of the plague. His diary not only describes the historical events of the plague; it also reveals the lifestyles lived by the wealthy in London and provides the reader with an idea of the social classes which existed in society (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Ultimately, it was his myopic and egotistical personality and his focus on money, status and business which influenced how he viewed the events of the plague and thus how he wrote about it.
Daniel Defoe, however, is unlike Pepys in terms of his education, wealth and personality. Although Defoe’s parents prevented him from studying at Oxford and Cambridge due to them being Dissenters, he was still well educated (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). He began his career as a merchant and entrepreneur and he moved from being prosperous to being bankrupt and then to being successful again (Richetti, 2006, p. 126). Even though Defoe was busy in his career and with his services to King William III as a spy, he constantly found time to write and pursue literature. His writing were classified into four prominent groups; his political and religious writings which had him arrested, his didactic writings, his journalistic writings such as A Journal of the Plague Year and his fictional writings which included his famous book, Robinson Crusoe (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe was a simple, middle-class citizen and has been described as, “a practical man, who took an active and not unimportant part in the daily work of the world” (Jokinen, 2006) .The quotes, “Defoe belonged by birth to a persecuted minority” and “Socially, his position differed from that of his greatest contemporaries in literature”, imply that Defoe did not come from a wealthy background nor did he live a wealthy and extravagant life-style. He went through hardships which shaped his personality and his literature, “His experiences might have embittered or warped him, but instead he became endlessly versatile, courageous and resilient” (Backscheider, 1989, p. 11). It is clear through his literary works that his personality, social status, hardships and spirit influenced his writing in terms of the emotion and understanding he portrays in them and this makes them differ from Pepys’s work. Pepys and Defoe’s accounts of the plague differ drastically in many terms.
One prominent feature regarding the difference between the two writers is the form of writing they used to document the events of the plague. Pepys provides a day to day account of the Great Plaque in the form of a personal diary. A diary is referred to as “A book in which one keeps a daily record of one’s experiences” (Oxford Dictionary , 2007). In his diary he recorded the daily events of his life and during the plague years he wrote about the progression of the plague and its effects on his life on an almost daily basis. Unlike Pepys, Defoe wrote about the plague many years after it had passed and focused on several main events (Shober, 2014). He did this by writing a journal on the Great Plague. A journal is, “A record of events… by a person who is an eyewitness or participant”, and is less intimate and private than a personal diary as it does not necessarily record a person’s daily activities and emotions (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe’s, A Journal of the Plague Years, can be described as a “semi-fictional reconstruction of an authentic, contemporaneous record” as he obtained his information for his journal from eye-witnesses’ accounts, pamphlets and official documents such as medical records and doctors notes which he used to reconstruct the events of the plague for his journal (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Pepys presents the events of the plague through his own experience of it; whereas Defoe presents the events of the plague through the narrator he created called H.F. or presumably Henry Foe, Defoe’s uncle who could have experienced the events of the plague (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000).
The ways in which Pepys and Defoe recorded the events of the plague, their responses to these events, and their individual personalities all influenced how and why they wrote about the plague. Indeed, the motives each writer had when presenting the events of the plague and the didactic nature of their works are vastly different. Pepys documented the events in his personal diary, thus making his work purely subjective and private. This brings about the notion that his work was written solely to record the events of his own personal life and his ideas. This also indicates that he had no intention of others ever reading his diary and thus his motive was not to inform or educate others on the events of the plague. Pepys wrote for his own pleasure and self – reflection, which is clear through his constant referral to his business, commerce and to the affect the plague had on him such as, “being troubled at the sickness, and my head filled also with other business enough, and particularly how to put my things and estate in order” (Wortham, 2011).
Even though Pepys had no intention of educating others on the plague, his diary is still didactic as it provides information on a historical event from a personal eye- witness account and constantly mentions factual information about the plague such as, “Above 700 dead of the plague this week” and “his servant died of a Bubo on his right groine, and two spots on his right thigh, which is the plague” (Wortham, 2011). “To the Theatre, and there saw “The Scornfull Lady” and “Mercer, her woman – Mary, Alice and Su, our maids; and Tom, my boy” also indicate that Pepys’ diary educated the reader on the different social classes in society in the 17th century as well as of the life-styles of the wealthy (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). In contrast to Pepys, Defoe’s journal of the plague is notably didactic and was written purely for the purpose of teaching its readers about the events of the plague. Defoe used his journal to show how the plague was spread and highlights the beliefs and ideas surrounding the plague, “the danger was spreading insensibly, for the sick could infect none but those that came within the reach of the sick person” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe’s journal informs the reader of how the plague affected ordinary people and their families, rather than himself and business as seen in Pepys’ diary. Defoe manages to convey the tragedy of the events and enables the reader to understand the events through the use of emotive stories such, ‘Burial Pits and Dead-Carts’, where the narrator sees a man mourning over his dead wife and children (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe also uses humour in the stories of the piper and the violent cure to lighten the sombre mood which surrounded the plague, “Defoe using the humour to balance the weightiness of some of his themes” (Hannis, 2007, p. 49). “’But I aint dead though, am i?’” is a statement made by the piper which causes the other characters to laugh and in turn reflects to the reader that not all happenings during the plague were grim (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000).
Pepys’s and Defoe’s texts both show didacticism, though for different reasons, and this in turn allows the text to relate to the reader in a certain manner. Pepys’ diary is purely personal and this influences how the text relates to and addresses the reader. His dairy shows no concern for the reader as he did not intend to have his dairy read, “There is no sign that he wanted people to read his brutally frank personal thoughts” (Timpson, 2010 ). It addresses the reader in an indirect and distant manner and is uninviting as he makes no effort to include them in the text and the events of the plague for example, “Up, and to the office and there all morning sitting” and “In the evening home to supper” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). This is evident as his diary entries are short and to the point and he predominantly wrote on the progression of his business and the events of the plague in terms of the death numbers, for example on March 13th 1666 he states, “the plague increased this week from 29 to 28, though the total fallen from 238 to 207, which do never a whit please me” (Wortham, 2011). This manner of writing may be useful to the reader in conveying information about the plague; however it doesn’t allow the text to relate to the reader on the personal and emotional level such as Defoe’s text. Defoe’s journalistic style allowed for him to carefully phrase the stories he told and to use certain methods to include the reader in his text. Defoe’s journal directly addresses his readers as he makes use of complete sentences and pronouns and this, “helped engender a sense that Defoe was directly talking to his readers” (Hannis, 2007, p. 48). Examples conveying this are “I remember one citizen who” and “I know the story goes” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Quotes from his journal such as, “I say, no sooner did he see the sight” and “but as John told me, the fellow was not blind”, also indicate that Defoe is conversing with the reader to a certain extent and directly including them in what the narrator was experiencing and thinking (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Ultimately, this brings the reader closer to his text and allows for them to gain a deeper understanding of the events he presents.
Another aspect to consider when looking at the contrast between Pepys and Defoe is the authenticity of their work. Both their accounts of the plague have elements of truth which are reassuring to the reader as they provide the texts with a sense of authenticity. Even though the reader is aware of the truth in Pepys’ text as it is his personal diary, there are many other aspects of it which assure the reader that there is truth in what he has written. This is firstly seen through Pepys’ constant referral to the Bill of Mortality which, “were produced… to reveal patterns of death and disease in early modern London” (Slauter, 2011, p. 1). Examples of this in the text are, “sent for the Weekly Bill and find 8252 dead in all” and “The Bill of Mortality, to all our griefs, is encreased 399 this week” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Pepys also writes about conversations he has had which indicate to the reader that he is speaking the truth, for example, “I met this noon with Dr Burnett, who told me…” and “Sir W Batten met me and did tell me” (Wortham, 2011) . Pepys also creates authenticity in his dairy through mentioning the dates of the days which he wrote such as, “October 31st 1665” and “April 5th 1666”. In Pepys’ diary, statements such as “So home late at my letter and so to bed” and “where to my great trouble I met a dead corpse, of the plague, in the narrow ally, just bringing down a little pair of stairs” provide detailed descriptions of small and trivial things which he does or experiences and this gives his text a further sense of truthfulness.
Defoe’s text on the other hand is based on actual events but was not written during the time of the events such as Pepys’ diary. Defoe is highly successful in reconstructing the events of the plague and creating a sense of authenticity in his work through the various techniques and sources he implemented, “Defoe’s reports were true, he was quick to include facts and details to heighten their verisimilitude” (Hannis, 2007). Although he writes about past events he uses a first person speaker, Henry Foe, who converses with other people in the journal such as the sexton (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). His narrator provides detailed, personal testimonies and honest first person accounts of the events such as, hearing about the man who committed suicide and seeing a man mourn over his dead wife and children. This causes the reader to believe that he was indeed a witness of the events (Shober, 2014).Defoe also includes dialogue such as, “‘Is he quite dead?’ And the first answered, ‘Ay, ay, quite dead; quite dead and cold!’”, which makes the situations in the text more believable (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe also uses street names such as “Bell Alley” and “Aldersgate Street”, names of inns such as “Angel Inn”, “White Horse” and “Pied Bull” and people’s names such as “John Hayward” which all existed in London during the time of the plague, to create authenticity in his journal (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe uses many primary and secondary sources such as The Bill of Mortality, doctors’ notes, pamphlets and eye- witness accounts to reconstruct his version of the plague years (Shober, 2014). Through the use of these sources, and also through scientifically associated people agreeing on the facts he mentions for example, “the opinion of the physicians agreed with my observations”, Defoe provides the reader with scientific credibility (Hazlitt, 1841). Although the events in his journal are verified, his descriptions of these events are sometimes overly dramatic, for example, “a woman… cried, ‘Oh! Death, death death!’” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). This dramatization may cause the reader to believe that that truth of the events could have been twisted to create a certain affect in the journal (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000).
The final, most important difference between Pepys and Defoe’s accounts of the plague is their use of emotion and understanding in their texts. As stated earlier, Pepys’ dairy is narrow focused compared to Defoe’s journal (Shober, 2014). Pepys shows little concern for other people who are affected by the plague and does not express emotion towards them but rather towards the shutting down of the town for example, “and so to bed sad at the news that seven or eight houses in Bazing-hall street are shut up” and “Lord, how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people,” (Wortham, 2011). In fact, he appears to be only concerned with his family and his business as his diary primarily focuses on himself, his daily events and how the plague affected him which is seen through his diary entries stating, “As to myself, I am very well” and “Also, the business of the office is great” (Wortham, 2011). Pepys takes an objective approach to the plague and it can be assumed he does this because of his self-centred personality. He is not at all concerned with anyone else and especially those who are of a lower status than him which can be seen through his statements such as, “the poor that cannot be taken notice through the greatness of the number” and “Captain Cockes black was dead of the plague- which I had heard of before but took no notice” (Wortham, 2011). He does not describe any personal or emotive happenings which occurred during the plague and this makes his text appear unsympathetic and unresponsive to the sorrow experienced by others who were affected by the plague (Shober, 2014).
Pepys’s diary elicits little emotion from his readers compared to the journal of Defoe, who, through his text, allows the reader to visualize and understand the true horror people experienced during the plague. Lewis states that Defoe’s text, “sets out to help its reader form images” and this is done through his use of emotion and the descriptions of people’s reactions to their experiences (2004). An example of this is his description of a man who mourned with, “a kind of masculine grief that could not give itself vent by tears” and that, “he cried out aloud, unable to contain himself” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). This emotional story, along with vivid descriptions such as, “a woman gave three frightful screeches, … in a most inimitable tone” and “His clothes were pulled off, his jaw fallen, his eyes open in a most frightful posture”, allows Defoe’s readers to visualize and understand the how the plague truly affected people on an emotional level. The quote stating that Defoe’s, “eerie evocation … of the plague itself, ‘freighted [their readers] terribly’”, supports the notion that he was able to clearly convey the true horror of the plague to the reader (Lewis, 2004, p. 95). Defoe also provides a broader picture of the plague compared to Pepys, as he not only writes about himself but also about others such as the man who lost his family and the piper (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe writes compassionately and with concern for all who are affected by the plague. He writes about different people from different backgrounds, social status and wealth and this in turn informs the reader that Defoe found every story of the plague to be meaningful, important and worth mourning over. Defoe’s compassion towards others is further seen through the scene where he hears of a man who has committed suicide and then states, “I care to not mention the name… that would be a hardship to the family, which is now flourishing again” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000).
Ultimately, Defoe’s emotions, compassion and attention given to affect the plague had on others, make his text a true and life- like description of the events. Although recording a single historical event, the Great Plague of London, Pepys and Defoe’s interpretations and their writings of the plague could not be more different. In his diary, Pepys’s approach to the plague is objective and scientific, as is seen through his constant referral to business and death numbers. He is primarily concerned with his own well-being and that of his business and thus provides numerical evidence of the plague to the reader. Defoe, however, provides a reconstructed journal of the plague years which focuses more on the events of others and the affects the plague had on them. His text also contains factual elements he gained through the use of many official sources and thus his journal not only provides historical evidence but also expresses genuine emotions experienced during such a tragedy.
Backscheider, P., 1989. Daniel Defoe: His Life. United States of America: The John Hopkins University Press. Cannan, P., 2006. The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. New York: Oxford Universoty Press. Firth, J., 2012. The History of Plague – Part 1. The Three Great Pandemics.. Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, 20(2), pp. 1- 16. Hannis, G., 2007. An example to the rest of your scribbling crew. The influentail literary techniques of the Eighteenth- century journalist Daniel Defoe, Issue 18, pp. 45 – 57. Hazlitt, W., 1841. The Works of Daniel Defoe with a Memoir of His Life and Writings. 2 ed. London: John Clements. Jokinen, A., 2006. Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature. [Online] Available at: http://www.luminarium.org/eightlit/defoe/defoebio.htm [Accessed 22 March 2014]. Lewis, J. E., 2004. A Journal of the Plague Year and the History of Apparitions. Spectral Currencies in the Air of Reality, 87(1), pp. 82 – 101. Liddy, M., 2014. Nelson Mandela: 12 letters from the desk of a freedom fighter. [Online] Available at: www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-06/nelson-mandela-letters/2900788 [Accessed 21 March 2014]. Oxford Dictionary , 2007. South African Oxford Dictionary. 3rd ed. s.l.:Oxford University Press . Pettinger, T., 2014. Famous Female Authors. [Online] Available at: http://www.biographyonline.net/writers/female-authors.html [Accessed 22 March 2014]. Richetti, J., 2006. The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. Shober, D., 2014. Defoe’s Journal – Mode of Narrative. s.l.:Lecture notes distributed in English Literature 310E at The University of Fort Hare on 26 February 2014. Slauter, W., 2011. The Bills of Mortality and the London Plague of 1665. Write Up Your Dead, 17(1), pp. 1 – 15. Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000. Elements of Literature. London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Stevenson, R. L., 1909–1917. Samuel Pepys. In: C. W. Eliot, ed. Essays: English and American. New York: Collier & Son. The National Archives, 2008. The National Archives – The Great Plague of 1665-6. [Online] Available at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/lessons/lesson49.htm [Accessed 21 March 2014]. Timpson, T., 2010 . Who was the man behind the diaries, Samuel Pepys?. [Online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10273445 [Accessed 22 March 2014]. Trueman, C., 2011. History Learning Site. [Online] Available at: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/symptoms_plague.htm [Accessed 2014 March 21]. Wortham, J (ed.). 2011. The Bubonic Plague of 1665 from the “The Diary of Samuel Pepys”. [Online] Available at: http://www.geocities.ws/jswortham/plague.html [Accessed 2014 March 22].
Autonomy and the Physical Body: Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” and Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”
Independence and personal freedom are fundamental values of both entire societies and individual life stories. However, within Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, contrasting physical representations of the body reign wherein characters are stripped of their autonomy. Defoe’s text offers its reader insight into the tense atmosphere of disease-infested London. Through vivid depictions of suffering and the outbreak’s effect on the physical body, Defoe demonstrates the ways in which the afflicted were not only robbed of their health, but also of their autonomy. Pope, on the other hand, paints a misogynistic portrait of the female body that has been deprived of her independence due to the constraints of seventeenth century gender ideologies.
Published fifty-seven years after the outbreak, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year recounts the events of the Great Plague of London in 1665. The text’s vigilant narrator, known only as H.F., chronicles the disease as it spreads across the city. Panicked residents flee from the capital, while courageous public officials, servants and poverty-stricken families remain behind. As the death toll rises, victims are continuously transported to the “pit in the churchyard of our parish of Aldgate” (Defoe, 21).
H.F.’s narration conveys the sound of grief within the cries of English citizens. Furthermore, through intense imagery, he paints a haunting atmospheric portrait of seventeenth century London. Rich in detail and rampant in vivid description, the plague’s physical effects on the human body are evident. The text’s narrator compares the epidemic to a type of mass hysteria:
“So they were as mad upon their running after quacks and mountebanks, and every practising old woman, for medicines and remedies; storing themselves with such multitudes of pills, potions, and preservatives, as they were called, that they not only spent their money but even poisoned themselves beforehand for fear of the poison of the infection; and prepared their bodies for the plague, instead of preserving them against it. On the other hand it is incredible and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows” (Defoe, 11).
H.F. offers his audience a vivid and gruesome depiction of the outbreak’s effects on the physical body. By alternating between narrative and eyewitness accounts of the attack, an emotional response is evoked within the reader, as one cannot help but feel affected by the continuous and pervasive examples of despair, pain and grief:
“The tokens come out upon them; after which they seldom lived six hours; for those spots they called the tokens were really gangrene spots, or mortified flesh in small knobs as broad as a little silver penny, and hard as a piece of callus or horn; so that, when the disease was come up to that length, there was nothing could follow but certain death; and yet, as I said, they knew nothing of their being infected, nor found themselves so much as out of order, till those mortal marks were upon them” (Defoe, 70).
Defoe is able to articulate the harrowing nature of the plague by concentrating on the horrific swellings on the bodies of the afflicted. He illustrates their severity, stating that people frantically tried to burst them by stabbing or burning them off. The pain was often unbearable and as a result, people shrieked throughout the streets of London. Others threw themselves into burial pits, murdered their children, sank into depression or committed suicide in order to relieve their suffering. Victims of the plague were not only stripped of their autonomy and their sanity, but they were also robbed of their bodies.
Although Defoe’s particularly graphic portrayals of the outbreak’s effects on the physical body are incredibly disturbing, his work is a testament to the endurance and perseverance of humanity. Therefore, by simultaneously eliciting themes of human distress and human fortitude among the realities of contending with the outbreak, Defoe’s morbid depictions of human suffering are justifiable and are furthermore key to exemplifying the epidemic of the seventeenth century.
Contrastingly, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a satirical indictment of the vanities and idleness of aristocratic society, wherein the narrator undermines the roles of women within seventeenth century. By writing during a time that privileged masculine political and literary expression, Pope confers the tensions – quite literally – onto the female body, which, as a result, becomes a controlled construct. The virtue of beauty and the significance of appearance – both physical and social – pervades Pope’s text, as he writes: “If to her share some female errors fall,/ Look on her face, and you’ll forget ‘em all” (Pope, 17-18). A woman’s self-worth and means of social freedom were heavily based upon the fulfillment of a culturally desirable social life. Women spent a great deal of time preparing themselves for social functions, where gracefulness was much more important than the communication of any intellectual thought.
When describing Belinda’s beauty routine, Pope states: “The inferior priestess, at her altar’s side,/ Trembling begins the sacred rites of Pride” (Pope, 127-128). For women, pride was also obtained through the beautification of the physical body. When Belinda is forced to deal with her sudden hair loss, she experiences a great deal of shame and public humiliation, exclaiming:
“Oh, had I rather unadmired remained/ In some love isle, or distant northern land. . . There kept my charms concealed from mortal eye,/ Like roses that in deserts bloom and die” (Pope, 153-158).
The “rape of the lock” shattered Belinda’s means of livelihood. Like many rape victims and women within socialized society, Belinda implies an inferior status by making an attempt to rationalize the incident and blaming herself. The text suggests the notion that Belinda would rather have been raped sexually. This way, she could have suffered private humiliation instead of having a lock of her hair cut off publicly.
Rendering the female body as a “painted vessel” (Pope, 47), Pope uses it is a satirical device that outlines the gender politics that were inseparable from seventeenth century societal stereotypes. By sustaining negative stereotypes and generalizations about the female character, he denies women of their autonomy and attempts to justify the inferiority complex within society’s construct of gender ideologies.
Graphic portrayals of the plague in Defoe’s A Journal of The Plague Year demonstrate the chilling prospect of an infectious disease whose rise revokes the autonomy of its victims, while challenging the resourcefulness of citizens and public officials. Through themes of human distress and perseverance, Defoe’s morbid depictions of human suffering are justifiable and are furthermore key to exemplifying London’s outbreak in the seventeenth century. However, in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, the one-sided depiction of Belinda and of the loss of her hair makes for an unjustifiable account of the woman and the body. His characterization and satirical telling of the incident paints a very negative picture of women. With little female character development and connotations to their flaws and weaknesses, Pope’s text is a great injustice to women.
Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Inner World Designs. Web.
Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web.
Class Distinctions in A Journal of the Plague Year
Class Distinctions in A Journal of the Plague Year Defoe repeatedly returns to how different classes experienced the plague of 1660’s in his pseudo-journalistic account, A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe contrasts the experience of the poor and the “middling class” with that of the wealthy. His account answers a number of important questions. Were rich people was more immune from the plague. Was one class more responsible for spreading it? How did different classes respond to the pestilence? Given Defoe’s politics and personal circumstances (he was rumored to have died while hiding from creditors), his focus on class is hardly surprising. His unsparing journalist’s pen skewers both rich and poor alike and reveals much about class distinctions in the 17th century England. Defoe contrasts how different classes are involved in the spread of disease. He begins by noting that “the plague was chiefly among the poor”. (68) Much of the spread of disease resulted from activities of the poor because they were “the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage”. (68) In “going about their employment”, the poor provided the few services that were available because merchandising, building and repair, navigation and many other businesses had come to a complete stop. Such jobs as were available often involved dealing with the sick – either through removal of bodies, guarding houses or nursing – which further spread contagion. Defoe is very specific on this point; he forcefully emphasizes “had it not been for the number of poor people who wanted employment”, the authorities “would never have found people to be employed. And then the bodies of the dead would have lain above ground”. (78) However, the rich were not entirely spared because they were often exposed to disease by their servants. Defoe notes that “the infection generally came into the houses of the citizens by their servants whom they [the wealthy] were obliged to send up and down the streets for necessaries; that is to say, for food or physic, to bakehouses, brewhouses, shops & c”. (56) Defoe speaks to the inevitability of cross-class contamination because servants met “with distemptered people, who conveyed the fatal breath into them and they brought it home to the families to which they belonged.” (56) Different classes also responded differently to the threat of infection. The rich fled the cities into the presumably safer countryside 14). Once safely ensconced, they gave liberally to charities that helped the poor. Defoe’s repeatedly credits them for such charity – which underwrote important functions like removal of the dead and other activities that minimized infection or benefited those that remained behind. Curiously fleeing was an option only for those who could secure their houses. Defoe notes that those who fled “generally found some or other of their neighbours or relations to commit the charge of those houses” … “which were entirely locked up” (66) The middling classes and those without friends faced a different dilemma because they risked the loss of their livelihood if they fled. Defoe’s narrator was himself in this situation; the reader sees him struggling to balance suggestions to leave against what would happen if he lost his saddle shop – and with it, his entire means of livelihood. The choice to flee (and how to do without losing one’s livelihood) was not open to the poor. Rather, the poor relied upon soothsayers, amulets, and astrologers to avoid infection. The poor were also particularly vulnerable to quacks with “specious titles”, who peddled such preventatives as “infallible preventative pills against the plague’, ‘never-failing preservative against infection’, ‘sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air’” and other dubious potions. (23) Regardless of class, those that stayed behind faced the issue of acquiring adequate provisions while simultaneously minimizing exposure. The rich and middling sorts achieved this goal by stocking up for the duration of the plague. Defoe’s narrator “went and bought two sacks of meal, and for several weeks, having an oven, we baked all our own bread; also I bought malt, and brewed as much been as all the casks I had would hold, and which seemed enough to serve my house for five or six weeks; also I laid in a quantity of salt butter and Cheshire cheese. (59) Once again, the poor had no such choices, but were required to go to market on a daily basis. This practice of daily marketing “brought an abundance of unsound people to the markets and a great many that thither brought death home with them”. (59) Once infected, different classes also behaved differently. While Defoe does not describe the response of wealthy persons who fled the city, he does describe those that remained behind. In many areas, there was “a profound silence in the streets” (79) Defoe describes people dying in their homes, generally with all their relatives and servants. This quiet illness and death contrasts sharply with the poor. Most peculiarly perhaps was “the wicked inclination” that Defoe observed “especially with respect to the poor” to intentionally infect others. Defoe struggles to provide an explanation for this behavior. This behavior – and other behaviors such as infected people hysterically running rampant – puzzle him. He suggests that the behavior may be related to the sickness itself – but is unable to explain why the public displays are observed primarily among the poor. A modern reader concludes that such public displays may be universal, but perhaps are more observed because the poor present a more public face. Defoe’s focus on class created a tradition that was further developed by other English writers. It is important to remember that Defoe was one of the first English novelists. By asserting that class distinctions were worth writing about in a novel form, he laid the foundation for future writers such as Dickens who explored this distinction in depth. While Defoe maintained a journalist’s tone throughout A Journal of the Plague Year, later writers were able to throw off this detachment to create more three dimensional characters that explore this further.
Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year: An Examination of the Effects of Apocalyptic Disease on Humanity
Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year gives the modern reader insight into the tense atmosphere of disease-infested urban London. However, the most important insights we gain from H.F.’s narrative are his observations on human behaviour, ones that can be applied universally to those who become part of the environment of epidemic. In H.F.’s journal, the issues regarding the wrath of God as the ultimate cause of plague, the discussions on plague’s means of transmission and treatment, the human desire for an explicable theory to the cause of it, as well as the class consciousness that becomes especially blatant during the plague outbreak of 1665, help to convey Defoe’s aim to present this particular visitation of plague in London as a multi-dimensional and complicated circumstance. Hence, the modern reader is less inclined to homogenize and simplify the experiences of plague victims, thereby leaving the narrative with a greater understanding of the tremendous effects of disease on humanity.While examining A Journal of the Plague Year, it becomes important to determine how far plague is represented as a divine visitation, or conversely, how much as a natural calamity. At the time of the 1665 plague outbreak, the wrath of God is the prevalent theory for accounting for the initial causation of plague. In fact, December 16, 1720 is declared as a national Day of Repentance, in the hopes that human penitence would counter the effects of plague, thus depicting the strong religious convictions of the English society throughout this time. Defoe’s narrator H.F. can represent the religious man of this period. In fact, he carries the Bible with him at all times and opens it to read spontaneous passages whenever he feels a need for external support and guidance. For instance, when H.F. is deliberating over whether to stay or flee London during the 1665 outbreak of plague, he opens the Bible randomly to Psalm 91 and finds support for his decision to stay, as he ultimately believes that plague is the “will of the Heavens”1. However, we must not mistake Defoe’s H.F. as a stock character who blindly accepts the reasons for plague in only religious terms. Rather, H.F. takes great efforts to examine the multi-dimensional nature of the 1665 visitation of plague. For instance, H.F. states that “Nothing but the immediate Finger of God, nothing but omnipotent Power could have done it”2. Plague is commonly attributed to the wrath of God. In fact, it is largely believed by the London population at this time that “even the buboes are the stroke of an angry diety”3. However, Defoe’s H.F. does not unquestioningly accept this explanation without examining other theories. For instance, he accepts that one could also attempt to explain plague through a scientific perspective. That is, plague can be attributed to natural scientific causes. Nevertheless, although H.F. recognizes potential scientific causes of plague, he does make it clear that even these scientific “natural” causes ultimately have God as their source4. H.F.’s ambivalent views on the wrath of God being the authority theory on the cause of the Plague can best be described as “orthodox rationalism” 5. In essence, although H.F. does give the dominant wrath of God theory as the cause of plague its due recognition, he does not fail to at least acknowledge other sources, thereby giving the reader insight into his deliberative and rational personality, one that makes him a distinct and credible plague narrator.In addition to investigating the causes behind the outbreak of plague in London, it also becomes important to examine the means of its transmission. At this time, the debate over how plague spreads is generally a binary between the miasmatic and the contagion theories. Today, it is a general consensus that plague is spread by fleas that become infected through rodents; however, this information is not made available until nearly a century after the 1665 visitation of the plague in London. The miasmatic view holds the notion that plague is spread through the air, since it purports that the putrid air of a plagued city carries the disease. However, Defoe rejects this miasmatic view in favour of the contagion theory. Defoe’s pro-contagion views manifest themselves throughout H.F’s narrative. He essentially believes that the poison of plague lies in the human being and not in the atmosphere. Hence, H.F.’s outrage at the careless behaviour of commoners during the 1665 visitation of plague, where many people simply paid little or no attention to who or where they kept company, can be sympathized with. In fact, H.F. observes that his opinion and the opinions of physicians coincided, that:the Sick cou’d infect none but those that came within reach of the sick Person…[the Sick] breathed Death in every Place, and upon every Body who came near them; nay their very Cloaths retained the Infection, their Hands would infect the Things they touch’d, especially if they were warm and sweaty”6.Hence, we can observe H.F.’s strong adherence to the contagion theory. It becomes important to acknowledge the two major views on plague’s means of transmission when examining H.F.’s narrative, as it is his strong conviction of the contagion view that lies behind his suggestions for the treatment and prevention of plague.Ironically enough, although H.F. did adamantly believe that plague is spread from human being to human being and not through the uncontainable air, he nonetheless also believes that the force of plague could not be prevented. He offers the reader contradicting views on the two major methods of treatment for plague advocated at these times, which include the shutting up of houses and fleeing from the city. For instance, although he himself resolves to stay in the city since he believes that plague is willed by God and is inescapable, he nonetheless advocates the impractical option of mass evacuation from the city in order to flee plague. H.F. states, “tho’ Providence seem’d to direct my Conduct to be otherwise; yet it is my opinion…that the best Physick against the Plague is to run away from it”7. Moreover, although he believes that plague is transmitted from person to person, he nonetheless deems the shutting up of the houses to prevent the spread of plague futile. He states on numerous instances throughout the text that the shutting up of the houses is ineffective and counter-productive, since it could not be effectively inforced. For instance, he describes, “I am speaking now of People made desperate, by the Apprehensions of their being shut up, and their breaking out by Stratagem or Force, either before or after they were shut up, whose Misery was not lessen’d, when they were out, but sadly encreased”8. Thus, H.F. does not endorse the shutting up of houses as a preventative measure against plague. In essence, Defoe’s narrator H.F. conveys justified but opposing views on plague’s means of transmission and prevention. Perhaps H.F.’s contradictory nature is symbolic of his pragmatic and deliberative nature, one that does not allow him to accept any concrete path of reasoning in order to perhaps better understand an incomprehensible epidemic.One of the most significant representations of plague that H.F. gives his audience is the hunger for meaning prevalent in his disease-ridden environment. We are given evidence in H.F.’s narrative of the human need for visualizing the force of plague in the hopes to extract some type of profound meaning from the epidemic. For instance, H.F. recounts how before the 1665 visitation of plague even really began, he finds:…a crowd of people in the Street all staring up into the Air, to see what a Woman told them appeared plain to her, which was an Angel cloth’d in white, with a fiery Sword in his Hand, waving it, or brandishing it over his Head. She described every Part of the Figure to the Life; shew’d them the Motion, and the Form; and the poor People cam into it so eagerly, and with so much Readiness; YES, I see it all plainly, says one. There’s the Sword as plain as can be. Another saw the Angel. One saw his very Face, and cry’d out, What a glorious Creature he was! One saw one thing, and one another9.It is important to examine this crucial passage in H.F.’s narrative as it allows the reader to gain insight into the emergence of quackery and corruption during an already dismal period. H.F. gives proof of the many people who are prepared to take economic advantage of those who became more vulnerable during the time of plague. For instance, literary critic Natasha Rosow describes:Posts were plastered with fraudulent advertisements for “infallible” preventative pills, “never failing” preservatives and “the Royalantidote.” A few physicians were also overcome by greed: “I give my advice to the poor for nothing, but not my physic (medicine) 10.We can observe how in general, the atmosphere during plague was one of fear of the unknown, where victims of this fear were easily manipulated. Hence, the inexplicable nature of plague creates an enigmatic atmosphere, thereby invoking a hunger for meaning within the people affected, as is demonstrated by the congregation gathered in the street striving to extract meaning from an imperceptible image.The issues of class discrimination arising in Defoe’s plague narrative are undoubtedly significant. Although the precise reasons for the cause and spread of plague were not unanimously agreed upon during the context of the narrative, it is however “generally agreed through experience that filthy, stinking, and overcrowded environments were particularly attractive to the infection and that plague was more prevalent among the dirty poor”11. Of course, the belief that there were more frequent occurrences of plague in the less wealthy classes most certainly led to class divisions and therefore a further solidification of an existing class hierarchy. Hence, H.F. dedicates a considerable part of his narrative to sympathizing with the specific plight of the poorer people during the 1665 visitation of plague. Margaret Healy explains in her article “Defoe’s Journal and the English Writing Tradition,” that while H.F. chastises the “useless mouths for their lack of foresight, poor husbandry, and extravagance, he simultaneously evinces admiration for their courage and dignity” 12. For example, H.F. includes a story about three men who escape plague by fleeing to the countryside. H.F. commends their ingenuity and religious conviction by stating that their plan is “a very good Pattern for any poor Man to follow” 13. Thus, it is evident that H.F. feels a great deal of sympathy and responsibility for the poor as they are most afflicted by the effects of plague. In fact, Defoe proposes in this narrative a mass evacuation from London in order to save the poor during plague. Although this highly impractical suggestion is not enacted, we can nevertheless observe his concern for the poor. He gives us a further example of how the poor suffered the most when he describes how watchmen could be bribed. He states:As several People, I say, got out of their Houses by Stratagem, after they were shut up, so others got out by bribing the Watchmen… I must confess, I thought it at the time, the most innocent Corruption, or Bribery, that any Man could be guilty of; and therefore could not but pity the poor Men14.Furthermore, according to Healy, Defoe believes that “it was public charity, not city credit, that saved the poor and maintained London order in 1665” 15. Ultimately, Defoe emphasizes salvation for the poor as it is inevitably linked with the salvation of plague-infested London as a whole.In conclusion, the issues of providence, causes, treatment methods, a desire for meaning and class consciousness that arise when studying H.F.’s interpretations of plague have applications beyond simply the major visitation of 1665 in London. Instead, Daniel Defoe’s text examines the transference of economic tensions among the aristocracy, the middle class and the poor into moral discourse. H.F.’s views and observations of plague infested London shed light on our own modern-day afflictions with epidemics such as the AIDS spread. Contemporary physician Laurence Segel questions, “Can we truthfully say we have never fled, abandoned or ostracized the afflicted?”16. Ultimately, the following statement from Albert Camus’ The Plague rings true: “I know positively that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it”17.Endnotes1 Daniel Defoe. Journal of the Plague Year. Edited with an Introduction by Louis Landa. Oxford University Press: London, 1969.2 Daniel Defoe. Journal of the Plague Year. Edited with an Introduction by Louis Landa. Oxford University Press: London, 1969. Page 244-45.3 Margaret Healy. “Defoe’s Journal and the English Plague Writing Tradition.” Literature and Medicine 22, no.1 (Spring 2003) 25-44. Copyright by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Page 28.4 Daniel Defoe. Journal of the Plague Year. Edited with an Introduction by Louis Landa. Oxford University Press: London, 1969. Page xxiii (introduction).5 Daniel Defoe. Journal of the Plague Year. Edited with an Introduction by Louis Landa. Oxford University Press: London, 1969. Page xxiii (introduction).6 Daniel Defoe. Journal of the Plague Year. Edited with an Introduction by Louis Landa. Oxford University Press: London, 1969. Page xxviii (introduction).7 Daniel Defoe. Journal of the Plague Year. Edited with an Introduction by Louis Landa. Oxford University Press: London, 1969. Page xviii (introduction).8 Daniel Defoe. Journal of the Plague Year. Edited with an Introduction by Louis Landa. Oxford University Press: London, 1969. Page 55.9 Daniel Defoe. Journal of the Plague Year. Edited with an Introduction by Louis Landa. Oxford University Press: London, 1969. Page 22-23.10 Natasha Rosow. “Constructing Authenticity.” Studies in the Novel, Volume 30, number 2 (Summer,1998). Copyright 1998 by the University of Northern Texas. Page 2.11 Margaret Healy. “Defoe’s Journal and the English Plague Writing Tradition.” Literature and Medicine 22, no.1 (Spring 2003) 25-44. Copyright by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Page 34.12 Margaret Healy. “Defoe’s Journal and the English Plague Writing Tradition.” Literature and Medicine 22, no.1 (Spring 2003) 25-44. Copyright by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Page 37.13 Daniel Defoe. Journal of the Plague Year. Edited with an Introduction by Louis Landa. Oxford University Press: London, 1969. Page 58.14 Daniel Defoe. Journal of the Plague Year. Edited with an Introduction by Louis Landa. Oxford University Press: London, 1969. Page 57.15 Daniel Defoe. Journal of the Plague Year. Edited with an Introduction by Louis Landa. Oxford University Press: London, 1969. Page 37.16 Laurence Segel—physician and assistant vice-president medical research and development, with a Toronto financial firm. Copyright 1997 Maclean Hunter Ltd.
In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe uses several methods to create convincing history out of fiction. In developing a false journal entry, Defoe creates authenticity primarily through the narrator, H.F.. The style and language of H.F.’s supposed journal play a large part in constructing authenticity. But beyond these aspects of the narration is the development of H.F.’s own story. Although the personality of this narrator is not always strong or clear, Defoe succeeds in strengthening the authenticity of the “journal” through aspects of H.F.’s character. Defoe explores H.F.’s emotions and motivation to make him more real. He must convince the reader that there is a living person behind this story, with reasons for writing it down, and a place in its events. The existence and credibility of this human presence are central in Defoe’s quest to construct authenticity.Many stylistic aspects of the novel contribute to a sense of reality. The outpouring of disgusting, painful, and tragic information creates an effect that mimics the overwhelming emotional trauma of the plague. By providing answers in advance to any plausible questions with this excess of information, Defoe almost invites the reader to challenge H.F.’s credibility. Defoe plants false evidence with mathematical charts and diagrams to support all of H.F.’s claims. He even includes supposed government documents from the time, with dates to even further promote a sense of reality. For example, the existence of dates in H.F.’s claim that “These orders of my Lord Mayor’s were published, as I have said, the latter end of June, and took place from the 1st of July…,”(57) is more important than their authenticity. Defoe is creating an official tone to deter doubt or questioning.Subtle hints that constantly defend the truth of H.F.’s tale can be found in Defoe’s use of language. Amid the outpouring of disturbing stories and terrifying fact, Defoe structures H.F.’s sentences to remind the reader of H.F.’s physical presence at the time of these events. Throughout the book, sentences are broken by these reminders. Almost any fact relayed is accompanied by the presence of one such statement, always involving the first person. Brief moments like “One of the worst days we had in the whole time, as I thought, was…” (118) or “I say, let any man consider…” (113) or “here I must observe,” (95) match all of the fact and detail with a person. And the presence of a human story behind all of this factual evidence greatly supplements the sense of reality. To present a distinctly human story, Defoe must present a distinctly human H.F..Defoe uses emotions to carefully craft H.F.’s authenticity as an actual human being. H.F.’s emotion is sparingly revealed, when he is realizing the manifestations of the plague, or reacting to specific events. In such instances, Defoe deals a double blow: He includes H.F.’s physical presence in the story while also inciting pity in the reader. This is a key emotion in connecting with H.F., as a human character, who proves he can suffer as any human does. The reader pities H.F., and therefore identifies with him, when he explains “I must acknowledge that this time was terrible, that I was sometimes at the end of all my resolutions, and that I had not the courage that I had at the beginning.”(189) In a book of disturbing stories, it is very convincing to find the narrator caught up in a moment of emotion. After hearing the devastating tale of a poor man’s dying family, H.F. explains that “I saw the tears run very plentifully down his face; and so they did down mine too, I assure you.” (122) Instead of simply telling us a story, or telling us of someone else telling a story, H.F. is now telling us of himself hearing a story. And H.F.’s pain in both experiencing and retelling the plague makes his voice ultimately more human.Most of the information that Defoe gives about this human story exists to make the account seem more real. One of H.F.s most consistent characteristics, as the supposed writer, is his careful distinction between truth and rumor. This is an especially subtle method of building the credibility of the journal as historic truth. H.F. gives most of his anecdotes a background, explaining that “[t]his I also had from his own mouth,”(106) or “as I was told,” (109) or even combining “by what I saw with my eyes and heard from other people that were eye-witnesses.” (116) If the narrator is so entirely preoccupied with distinguishing between what is observed, and therefore solid truth and what is less trustworthy, the impulse to question this supposed observed truth is distracted and diminished. It seems unlikely that the narrator would take such pains with citing his sources if these sources didn’t even exist. H.F. sometimes even presents his journal as a sort of attempt to provide truth, explaining that “[t]he plague was itself very terrible, and the distress of the people very great, as you may observe of what I have said. But the rumour was infinitely greater…” (225) Defoe is sly in including honesty as one of H.F.’s preoccupations. The narrator does not simply tell the truth. He is also supposedly determined to destroy anything false. H.F.’s own obsession with authenticity and credibility further masks the fiction of the tale.By setting up reasons for the journal to exist, or motives behind H.F.’s diligent recordings, there is even more history to this document. Defoe presents H.F. as an impulsive observer, or researcher, driven to learn all he can. In several instances, the reader is allowed a glance into H.F.’s task, and explanation of his purpose. In a moment of emotion, as he remembers the sounds of crying in the streets, H.F. exclaims “If I could but tell this part in such moving accents as should alarm the very soul of the reader, I should rejoice that I recorded those things, however short and important.” (120) He is haunted by all of these facts and tales, and has no choice but to try and make the world understand. Once again, the reader empathizes with H.F., and a more complete and convincing character emerges.Defoe weaves together a world of facts, a present and involved narrator, and an existing writer’s quest to create an actual and convincing plague year. What is perhaps most convincing, though, is the misleading title page, which claims that this novel is “A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials, Of the most Remarkable Occurrences, As well Publick as Private, Which happened in London During the last Great Visitation In 1665.” Not only does Defoe’s title mask the falsity of what follows in a flowery proclamation, but explains that the author is “a Citizen who continued all the while in London.” Before the reader is subject to Defoe’s fooling style, or H.F.’s personality, the packaging seduces. By promising initially that what follows is truth, Defoe succeeds in shading everything with this sentiment. At some point, the reader surrenders to Defoe’s efforts, and the plague becomes as real and overwhelming as H.F. claims he wishes it to seem.