Reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is a depressing experience, even under the best of circumstances. But read under quarantine, with healthcare and economic systems in collapse and hundreds of thousands of deaths expected by summer, the novel assumes a degree of realism that feels positively oppressive.1 Perhaps this feeling is rooted in a desire to interpret COVID-19 through Defoe’s text, with similarities between the coronavirus pandemic and the bubonic plague seeming to appear at every narrative turn. I suppose one can’t help but project a little. But issues of projection or confirmation bias aside, there are real similarities between what Defoe describes in A Journal of the Plague Year and what we are currently experiencing, and it seems to me that these similarities offer valuable lessons not only about how contagion spreads, but also about how to navigate the social fissures that appear at times of public health and economic crisis.
That A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722 and focused on the Great Plague of 1665, should map so precisely onto the coronavirus pandemic is a grim reminder that humanity remains bound by perennial failings of character, both individual and social. The fundamental meanness with which Defoe’s Londoners manage the plague is not incommensurate with some elements of the global response to COVID-19.2 This meanness is expressed most pointedly in the “shutting up of houses,” i.e., the strict quarantining of the sick, together with their families, in their homes. This policy not only violated the rights of the sick, but it also forced large numbers of healthy people to remain cloistered with their contagious housemates, thus dramatically increasing the likelihood that they too would contract the plague. At the same time, Defoe describes the widespread refusal of the sick to remain in their homes, even when they knew that breaking quarantine was likely to further spread the disease throughout the city. He even goes so far as to voice the suspicion that those with the plague willfully infected their neighbors, writing, “the People broke out, whether by Force or by Strategem, even almost as often as they pleas’d: And . . . those that did thus break out, were generally People infected, who in their Desperation, running about from one Place to another, valued not who they injur’d, and which perhaps, as I have said, might give Birth to Report, that it was natural to the infected People to desire to infect others.”3 Though ultimately dismissed as rumor, this account nonetheless suggests that a pervasive sense of suspicion and hostility, along with a disturbing disregard for the lives of one’s neighbors, accompanied the plague.4
The spectre of people intentionally infecting their neighbors is one of several sensationalist ideas developed in A Journal of the Plague Year, but the bulk of the novel focuses on the many mundane ways that people failed to contain the spread of the plague. One example comes when the novel’s narrator, H.F., follows a grieving husband who has become distraught after witnessing a group of “Buryers” unceremoniously dump the bodies of his deceased wife and children into a mass grave.5 Traumatized by this grizzly sight, the man retreats to a local tavern, which is owned by family friends to whom he turns for solace. Although the tavern runs a clear public health risk by continuing to operate, H.F. expresses sympathy toward its owners, stating that they are “civil” and “mannerly” people, and that they did not operate their tavern “so very publickly as formerly” (56). However, within the tavern is a group of patrons who are not so mannerly, a “dreadful Set of Fellows” who are undeterred by the panic that has gripped the city. These men “behaved with all the Revelling and roaring extravagances, as is usual for such People to do at other Times.” They drink late into the night and mock those who “call upon God to have Mercy upon them, as many would do at those Times in their ordinary passing along the Streets” (56). Not surprisingly, the men soon contract the plague and die a painful death, taking with them an unknown number of people they may have infected along the way.
H.F. openly rebukes these plague-time revelers for their atheism, which he sees as at least partially responsible for their ultimate demise, thus leading to a verbal confrontation that Defoe uses to introduce the regrettable argument that the plague is the “Hand of God” sent to punish a wicked people (57). We have heard enough such claims in our own time to render H.F. himself a suitable representative of the perennial failings of character I mentioned earlier.6 However, despite his religious bigotry, H.F. clearly recognizes the irresponsible behavior that is taking place in the tavern—both on the part of the tavern’s patrons and its keepers. While his contempt for the “dreadful Set of Fellows” is explicit, it is also “with Regret” that he mentions the owners of the tavern who have insisted on keeping their establishment open, even as the dead carts were wheeled by their doors each evening (56). Reading this section of the novel, it is tempting to draw a direct parallel to similarly irresponsible incidents that have made their way into the media over the past month or so. For example, are Defoe’s revelers really so different from the many spring breakers who defied urgent coronavirus warnings in order to travel to popular party destinations in Florida and Mexico? According to one New York Times report, approximately seventy students from the University of Texas traveled to Cabo San Lucas for Spring Break on March 14, despite the fact that the university cancelled classes on March 13 due to coronavirus concerns. As of April 1, forty-four of those students had tested positive for COVID-19.7 Those students are now back in Austin, my hometown, where the number of positive cases have increased dramatically from three to nearly eight hundred since spring break.8
Scenarios such as these obviously occur within the realm of the social, but they are, at a more fundamental level, driven by the irrational decisions of individuals who feel emboldened by a mix of arrogance and self-centered denialism to defy even the most urgent, well-founded public health warnings. Those who go partying during a pandemic (or a plague) are exercising willful ignorance, not acting according to a clear sense of socioeconomic necessity, or even according to a clear sense of class privilege. While the willfully ignorant are in the minority in A Journal of the Plague Year, as I would argue they are now as well, both the novel and our contemporary moment are filled with clear examples of social failings and fissures. In other words, it is at the level of the social, and not the individual, that Defoe assigns the most blame for the spread of the plague, and it is at the level of the social that we too should turn our attention when considering the causes and potentially catastrophic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the remarkable qualities of A Journal of the Plague Year is the amount of attention the narrative pays to matters of economic and social stratification. Because Defoe uses H.F.’s restless wanderings to document where and how the plague spread through London, he is compelled to address in detail how the particular social inequalities that existed in seventeenth-century England contributed to the disproportionate infection and impoverishment of certain classes of people over others. For example, he makes clear that the moneyed class, to which H.F. belongs, has largely abandoned London for the countryside, estimating that as many as 200,000 people fled the city during the plague.9 And those property owners who chose to remain in the city depended on servants to run errands, do the shopping, procure medicine, etc. in order to spare themselves from the dangers they were sure to encounter when walking the streets. Or so went the logic. The fact is that this practice did little to mitigate the risk of infection. Defoe writes that the plague “generally came into the Houses of the Citizens, by the Means of their Servants . . . who going necessarily thro’ the Streets into Shops, Markets, and the like, it was impossible, but that they should one way or other, meet with distempered people, who conveyed the fatal Breath into them, and they brought it Home to the Families, to which they belonged” (63). What is clear throughout the novel is that the servant class was expected to risk direct and regular exposure to the plague in order to satisfy the needs of their employers. This class-based practice not only subjected the most vulnerable to disproportionate risk of infection, but it also—in an ironic feedback loop—carried the plague directly into the homes of the privileged classes.
There is a marked ambivalence in the way Defoe represents these class tensions. For example, he clearly pities the poor and laboring classes, recognizing that they are the most vulnerable to infectious disease precisely because they lack the material resources to remain in quarantine. He explains that “that the Poor cou’d not lay up Provisions, and there was a necessity, that they must go to Market to buy,” and that this necessity “brought abundance of unsound People to the Markets, and a great many that went thither Sound, brought Death Home with them” (67). Similarly, he notes that the laboring classes continued to work during the plague with “a Sort of Brutal Courage.” Driven by necessity, they “ran into any Business, which they could get Employment in, tho’ it was the most hazardous,” and it was due to this necessity that “the Plague was chiefly among the Poor” (75). That people should be driven by such necessity is repeatedly condemned in the novel. Indeed, one of Defoe’s goals in writing A Journal of the Plague Year was to educate his readers about how to more efficiently contain the spread of future plagues, and he repeatedly suggests that public assistance to the poor is one way to mitigate the spread of epidemics.10
Yet at the same time, Defoe expresses contempt for the poor, repeatedly asserting that the desperation of the lower classes threatened to devolve into pillage and rioting. The fear of mob action becomes something of a recurring motif as the narrative progresses, and it ultimately strips away any pretension of authentic sympathy for the poor. Defoe goes so far as to suggest that the death of 40,000 poor people was a “Deliverance” for London, as higher rates of survival among the poor “would certainly have been an unsufferable Burden, by their Poverty, that is to say, the whole City could not have supported the Expence of them, or have provided Food for them; and they would in Time have been even driven to the Necessity of plundering either the City it self, or the Country adjacent to have subsisted themselves” (81-82). So while Defoe understands full well that the lower classes are most vulnerable to the plague, and while he uses his novel to encourage both governmental and philanthropic aid to the poor, his ultimate social calculus is clear: better the poor should die than public resources be strained to their limits. The role of class in this calculus couldn’t be clearer.
Defoe’s ambivalence toward the poor and laboring classes is not surprising considering that both he and his narrator belong to the propertied class.11 We learn early in the novel that H.F. is a “Sadler” who operates a thriving business exporting goods to the American colonies.12 He commands a fair deal of capital and is anxious about how to secure his possessions during the plague. At the outset of the novel, he says, “I was a single man ’tis true, but I had a Family of Servants, who I kept at my Business, had a House, Shop, and Ware-houses fill’d with Goods; and in short, to leave them all as things in such a Case must be left, that is to say, without any Overseer or Person fit to be trusted with them, had been to hazard the Loss not only of my Trade, but of my Goods, and indeed of all I had in the World” (11-12). The way he characterizes his servants is revealing here. He introduces them as a proxy “Family” that substitutes for his being unmarried, yet they are also listed among his other property as “Goods” that cannot be left without a proper “Overseer.”13 He clearly feels a sense of responsibility toward his servants, but this feeling of responsibility is embedded within a larger context that ranks the servant class among the possessions of the propertied class.
The stark class divisions represented in the novel may be depressing, but they are also useful in terms of understanding the social fissures that appear during times of crisis. One of the great services A Journal of the Plague Year performs for contemporary readers, especially during a time of global pandemic, is that it lays bare the reality of how class antagonisms structure how public health crises are thought about and managed. Class antagonisms manifest themselves in many different ways throughout the narrative, but their most extreme expression comes with H.F.’s assertion that the death of 40,000 poor people was a “Deliverance” for London. While he attempts to qualify his relief as a righteous concern for the common good, the fact is that he places the lives of the poor within a contest between life and property, with property taking priority. This is ideology pure and simple, and it illustrates how easily a social situation that subjects the most vulnerable to the most severe suffering can be justified as a necessary evil.
At the same time, A Journal of the Plague Year dramatizes many acts of resistance against the ruling class. This is not because Defoe endorses such resistance, but rather because he has no choice but to represent these acts as a matter of verisimilitude. If he is to craft a novel that accurately represents the Great Plague of 1665, he must account for the fact that the poor and laboring classes carried within themselves the potential to revolt against a system that ranked them among goods and property. An excellent example of this impulse comes early in the novel, when H.F.’s plan to escape London for the countryside is stymied by the preemptive flight of his most favored servant. No sooner does H.F. decide to travel from the city on foot, with a single servant to aid him on his journey, then his plans are subverted: “But then my Servant who I had intended to take down with me, deceiv’d me; and being frightened at the Encrease of the Distemper, and not knowing when I should go, he took other Measures, and left me” (13). The result is that H.F. is left to look after himself, while his servant is liberated from the responsibility of putting his own life in jeopardy to ensure the health and safety of his employer. That the servant took “other Measures” thus becomes a point of departure from which readers can imagine a host of similar measures that the poor and laboring classes can take to liberate themselves from a system of social subordinating that always extracts the highest cost from those who have the least.
We never learn what became of this servant. He simply vanishes from the text. This disappearance can be interpreted in a number of ways. For example, one may reasonably conclude that the servant, like so many other poor Londoners, struggled mightily—and perhaps even died—during the plague. However, one may just as reasonably conclude that the servant successfully escaped the mortal danger that he most surely would have encountered if he had remained in H.F.’s employment. While Defoe spends a fair deal of time late in the novel illustrating the challenges that those who fled the city encountered, and while he makes the case that most people who fled the city ended up returning to their homes a short time later, he also details a series of successful strategies for surviving the plague while in exile. Indeed, the most detailed anecdote in the novel focuses on the successful escape from the city of three working-class men—a baker, a sail maker, and a joiner—who survive their ordeal through a mix of practical skills and wit. They also survive because they exhibit a strong sense of solidarity with other working-class people they meet during their travels.14 Considered in this context, the story of the escaped servant takes on a utopian dimension, especially when we consider that the servant never returns. His escape, though left to the reader’s imagination, is permanent.
These stories suggest that the poor and laboring classes can fend for themselves, that they can survive free from the domination of capital, and that they are sensitive to the fissures that appear during moments of public crisis—fissures that present avenues of liberation that remain obscured under ordinary circumstances. This is not to suggest that the coronavirus pandemic represents a class victory. It doesn’t. The fact is that people are suffering and dying, and those who carry the greatest burden of suffering are the least advantaged among us.15 However, times of social crisis do tend to expose the tensions and contradictions that are all too often obscured by the routines of everyday life, and we would do well to learn from the coronavirus pandemic in order to build a better future. Reading A Journal of the Plague Year during this pandemic has helped me perceive some of these contradictions and opportunities more precisely than I otherwise may have. One of my takeaways after reading the novel comes from the relatively minor detail of the subversive servant. Perhaps there is something to be learned from his recognition that the plague presents a unique opportunity to reject subordination. Perhaps all of us can pursue “other Measures,” and not only in this time of crisis, but in everyday life as well.
© 2020 Micah Robbins