Literature / A Journal of the Plague Year

A casement violently opened just above my head, and a Woman gave three frightful screeches, then cried "Oh! Death, death, death!

An historical novel by Daniel Defoe, published in 1722. The book describes the experiences of a man living in London during the the Great Plague of London in 1665. It's not Defoe's journal (he was a small child at the time), although it might be based on his uncle's stories. There are also similarities between certain passages of the Journal and Samuel Pepys' diary - suggested to be because Defoe was friends with someone who had worked for Pepys while he was writing the diary. It was published as "written by a Citizen" rather than Defoe, and framed as an anonymous autobiography rather than a work of fiction. To what extent people believed this narrative frame is debatable.

The narrator describes in vivid detail the sufferings of the people of London during the epidemic, ranging from simply recounting the bills of deaths with ominously rising numbers of fatalities from week to week, to several in depth vignettes about how certain groups or individuals weathered the plague - or otherwise. He also includes a more general analysis of the effects of the plague on various institutions such as the Church, trade and the government of the city, which by the time Defoe was writing had all radically changed. There are also a few musings about human nature, piety and some *ahem* slightly uncomfortable speculation about the nature of the plague itself.

A Journal of the Plague Year contains the following tropes:

  • Apocalyptic Log
  • Based on a True Story: It's debatable to what extent, which parts (if any) are entirely fictional and which parts (if any) are entirely accurate.
  • Black Comedy: Verging on the satiric.
    The Inns of Court were all shut up ... every body was at peace.
  • The Black Death: Obviously
  • Britain Is Only London: Set in London and the narrator refuses to leave the city, enforcing this trope.
  • Crapsack World
  • Depopulation Bomb: The plague outbreak killed around 100,000 people, which still pales in comparison to the overall death toll from the Black Death.
  • Doomed Hometown: Because the novel was written in the 1720s, this is the case for London. Defoe knew that after the apocalyptic plague would come the Great Fire of London, destroying much of the medieval city's architecture forever. The London he writes about technically no longer exists.
  • Dying Town: The population of London is dramatically reduced thanks to the plague, leading to this effect.
  • The End Is Nigh: Quite a lot of Doomsayers crop up once the plague is in full swing, although subverted somewhat, Defoe dismisses them on the grounds that they all prophesy a relapse of plague more virulent than ever before and failed to foretell the Great Fire Of London that wrecked the city only a year after the plague.
  • Fair for Its Day: Obviously the plague wasn't the fault of foreigners or Catholics, but for Defoe's narrator that seemed like the logical assumption.
  • Ghost Town: Thanks to the plague.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The author vacillates a bit as to whether he thinks that that plague is natural or divine.
  • Nightmare Fuel: Nearly everything that happens. People are nearly buried alive - at least, those who wake up in time to protest are - houses are filled with bodies and London at the end is left a ghost town.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Fearing that they might carry the plague, the city authorities order the destruction of all cats and dogs, the two best animals for tackling the rats whose fleas were really responsible.
  • Older Than They Think: Modern critics have noticed a distinct similarity between the treatment of plague victims and the 1990s public fear of AIDS.
  • Phony Psychic: Apparently a lot of these sprang up to prey on the fears of the population, much to the author's contempt. They all notably fail to predict the Great Fire of London, which Defoe (writing in the 1720s) knew was coming.
  • Science Marches On: Pretty much everything related to medicine and disease in the book has been subsequently disproved.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Similar to the Phony Psychic above, many selling supposedly guaranteed cures and preventatives for the plague. Although, arguably the only difference between them and the actual medical professionals of the time is that these guys knew that their products didn't work.
  • Wretched Hive: London in the grip of the plague.