- Series: Penguin Classics
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Classics; Revised edition (August 26, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140437851
- ISBN-13: 978-0140437850
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 113 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #446,380 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Journal of the Plague Year (Penguin Classics) Revised Edition
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"Within the texture of Defoe's prose, London becomes a living and suffering being." (Peter Ackroyd)
About the Author
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) had a variety of careers including merchant, soldier, secret agent, and political pamphleteer. He wrote economic texts, history, biography, crime, and, most famously, fiction, including Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and Roxana.
Cynthia Wall is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Top customer reviews
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The work is classified as a “novel” and is discussed in most reviews as a work of fiction. It is a work of fiction in the sense that the first person narrator is a fictional person (probably based on Defoe’s uncle) because Defoe, himself, would have been only 5 years old in 1665 at the time of the Great London Plague. However, it is a well-researched report of a historical event through fictional eyes. I believe that the anecdotes and events reported were for the most part real and developed based on detailed interviews with survivors of the event and on contemporary records. I would classify the work more as a “non-fiction novel,” somewhat in the nature of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Capote claimed that “non-fiction novels” do not include first-person viewpoint. Well, this was well before Capote’s time, and Defoe’s work may take precedence over Capote’s pontification.
Defoe continues to write in his essentially simple, but detailed and informative style. The journalist states a number of times that he intends the journal to be of assistance to understanding how to deal with such an event if it should recur. The journalist is at times repetitive and the work includes far too much detail of “death and disease” statistics for a 21st century reader; but at the time the work was published these would likely have been of interest to readers and certainly of interest to any future reader using the book as a guide to dealing with a similar event.
One oddity of the book – there are no chapter or section divisions; the largest subdivision of the text is paragraphs. Another oddity of Defoe’s style, he uses the phrase “I say” as a kind of intensifier or conjunction quite frequently, especially early in the book. I’ve not seen this done by any other writer; but Defoe frequently used it as a device to remind the reader that he is continuing on a thought that he started several lines earlier. I found it an interesting literary device that causes the writer to seem more as if he is speaking directly to the reader.
It is clear from Defoe’s descriptions that a vast majority of the populace and the physicians all generally considered spread of the plague to be an infection or contagion that went from one person to another by some physical means, possibly by exhalation or body odors, possibly by body fluids, possibly by materials handled by a diseased person, etc. They did not consider the disease to be caused by something ambient in the air or caused by an act of divine providence upon specific individuals. So, their expectation would be that a completely isolated person or family would be safe from the disease. With this understanding, it is somewhat surprising to me that physicians or other scientists of the time did not figure out that the vector for the plague – if it was indeed bubonic plague, as generally attributed – was vermin of one sort or another. They would not have had the knowledge to correctly assign the root cause to bacteria carried by fleas; however, it seems to me that they should have had the capability to figure out that the vector was fleas on rats or other small rodents or, if not the fleas, then at least the animals themselves. Yet, this connection was never made or even suggested.
Significant parts of the journal describe the plight of the working poor during this crisis. With the wealthy fleeing the city and many businesses closing, the individuals who worked daily for their bread lost their normal source of income and ability to buy food. The journalist gives high praise to the Lord Mayor of London and his Aldermen for their management of this aspect of the crisis.
The book is well worth the time it takes to read.
For anyone interested in the subject this is actually a more detailed and fascinating account than the one in Samuel Pepys diary of the same period. A short read but one that will truly result in an understanding of a dark episode in London's history.
The style of writing is old (understandably).
It is worth considering if interested in plagues or London history...but for such a small book it took a lot of time to get through it.
The Easton Press edition I purchased is part of the 100 Greatest Books series, comes bound in genuine leather, and has the trademark features such as moire endleaves, satin ribbon page markers, and illustrations. The illustrations here are actually quite graphic and macabre and add to the authentic feel of this narrative.