A Journal of the Plague Year
There’s what you do to make a living and then there’s real work. The real work here at AHC is amassing and synthesizing ideas from all over. Luckily I spend two and a half hours a day on trains so there’s plenty of time for idea gathering .
Those twice daily rail trips are allotted to serious stuff in the AM and lighter fare in the afternoon. The present volume fell in the latter category which gives you some idea of what constitutes lighter fare in these parts. Like I said, it’s work.
And so to Defoe, most famous as the author of Robinson Crusoe. Anyone raised in the Anglo world has probably not avoided some contact with that tale of shipwreck and isolation. Indeed, it’s a trope, endlessly revisited and updated as in the Tom Hanks movie from 2000, Cast Away.
The web programmer in my firm aside, I’m not sure anyone actually reads that book anymore. As a movie it works in 120 minutes. In book form, with it’s ponderous 18th century language, it’s torture. I read it in college as an early example of the novel and it damn near killed me.
Still, though, I harbor an ever-sneaking suspicion that I let myself off too easily. So when the Journal turned up in the dollar bin at Barnes & Noble I bought it reasoning that, at under 200 pages, I’d survive.
Defoe was one of the first people to make a living as a writer although he had enough going on to keep several people busy. No writer can be separated from their environment and it’s important to remember that Defoe lived just after the consolidation of the English reformation. As a dissenting minister he had an ax to grind and there’s almost always a subtext of conversion and Protestant morality lurking in his writing.
So while it’s possible to read A Journal of the Plague Year as the first historical novel, it’s just as easy to read it as a cautionary morality tale. It might also be the first plotless novel. Some would take exception to that statement but I think it’s accurate. The tale is less a journal–with it’s suggestion of dated entries–than a pseudo-memoir written long after the events. That and the title tell you what happens: plague, unimaginable numbers of deaths, survival of the author.
Now, about all that death. It’s widespread and the author keeps toting up the corpses by geography to demonstrate the virulence of the germ. There’s a great deal of detail about the types of people spared and stricken, and the tokens–or marks–of the disease.
This last bit is brilliant. In the context of Calvinist theology–with its emphasis on predestination–there was always an emphasis on the signs that one is among the elect. How nifty of God to mark the damned like some latter day tribe of Cains. It should not go unremarked that our narrator, by dint of surviving, also bears a mark, albeit the opposite one. I have to conclude that we’re meant to draw that lesson, if only because our scribe lives an upright life.
There’s a fabulous set piece that really underscores the religious underpinnings of this tale. In a scene equal parts Dante’s Inferno and Monty Python our narrator follows the dead cart through the streets of London. He winds up in the dark of night at the edge of a mass grave–literally the pit–into which the bodies of the day’s deceased are, I believe, catapulted. With the scene lit by fire and the site covered with scrambling employees and corpses as far as the eye can see you couldn’t ask for a more vivid picture of being sent straight to hell.
What the heck, let’s end on an up note. Here are those Pythons and their dead cart: