Daily Archives: June 30, 2020

‘A Journal of the Plague Year’, by Daniel Defoe – review

A Journal of the Plague YearA Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The biblical cyclicity of history proclaims that what is happening now happened before because there’s no new thing under the sun. In this regard, the ways the civic administration and people response to the current Covid-19 pandemic don’t seem to be a novelty in comparison with the similar precedence of epidemic phenomena as vividly depicted in Daniel Defoe’s nonfiction novel A Journal of the Plague Year, a classic 1722 account of the Black Death that devastated England from 1664 to 1665. In this story of the seismic bubonic plague written in the first-person narrative, Defoe’s recounting of the plague successfully resurrects the spirit of the epoch as his narrator guides the reader to the places and scenes of the seismic event in the capacity of a charitable and knowledgeable guardian of posterity, making them surprisingly similar to those of ours.

The journal is narrated by an intelligent Londoner named “H.F,” a merchant of hosiery and a man of Christian principles and analytical mind, who decides not to take refuge in some remotely safe area away from the pest-ridden city, and instead to take pen to paper as a witness to the human tragedy for posterity. It is a literary eye-witness account of what happened during the resurgence of the bubonic plague that had ravaged Europe hundreds of years earlier in the semblance of a nonfiction narrative. Although it is asserted as fiction by many, the narrative reads all the more truthful because of the verisimilitude of the conditions of the plague in the context of the realistic descriptions of the symptoms of the disease and the subsequent influences on the lives of the people surrounding his daily lives.

Despite the fact that Defoe was only five years old when the plague swept England, in the peculiar alchemy of literature doubled with his vivid imaginations, his fictional narrator feels very real and the account telltale as though it had been written it in the spirit of Veni Vidi Vici. So much so that the story seems more veritable than the counterpart of Samuel Pepys whose narrative feels comparatively prosaic without the personal charm of the narrator. The reader will also learn that the 17th-century modus operandi of dealing with a pandemic is not that far from the current 21st-century preventive measures of social distancing, personal hygienic disciplines, and other relevant systematic societal restrictions.

Defoe holds up a mirror to his posterity that shows what it was like during the epidemic scare and what the people from days of yore did to sail through such calamity as a wise and warm advisor to our current global pandemic situations. In fact, while I was reading the book, I was surprised by how similar the cautious measures decreed by the authority were then to our own now. In this regard, I opine that this book should be a must-read instead of Boccaccio’s The Decameron, the famed officialized book related to the epidemic phenomena, because of its authority of truthful narrative drawn on empirical oral accounts of the plague and its power of reality rendered so close to the lives of the ordinary folk that we can relate to this day.

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