Background In A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe chronicles the epidemic through the eyes of his narrator, a saddle maker known only as H. F. Early in the novel, as many people are fleeing the city, H. F. agonizes over whether he too should leave London. After reading a passage in the Bible, he decides to stay and to do what he can for those in need, trusting that God will keep him from falling victim to “the noisome pestilence.”
The face of London was now indeed strangely altered, I mean the whole mass of buildings, city, liberties, suburbs, Westminster, Southwark, and altogether; for as to the particular part called the city, or within the walls, that was not yet much infected. But in the whole the face of things, I say, was much altered; sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and, as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger. Were it possible to represent those times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the reader due ideas of the horror that everywhere presented itself, it must make just impressions upon their minds and fill them with surprise. London might well be said to be all in tears; the mourners did not go about the streets indeed, for nobody put on black or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearest friends; but the voice of mourning was truly heard in the streets. The shrieks of women and children at the windows and doors of their houses, where their dearest relations were perhaps dying, or just dead, were so frequent to be heard as we passed the streets, that it was enough to pierce the stoutest heart in the world to hear them. Tears and lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end men’s hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour. …
I went all the first part of the time freely about the streets, though not so freely as to run myself into apparent danger, except when they dug the great pit in the churchyard of our parish of Aldgate. A terrible pit it was, and I could not resist my curiosity to go and see it. As near as I may judge, it was about forty feet in length, and about fifteen or sixteen feet broad, and, at the time I first looked at it, about nine feet deep; but it was said they dug it near twenty feet deep afterwards in one part of it, till they could go no deeper for the water; for they had, it seems, dug several large pits before this. For though the plague was long a-coming to our parish, yet, when it did come, there was no parish in or about London where it raged with such violence as in the two parishes of Aldgate and Whitechapel. …
They had supposed this pit would have supplied them for a month or more when they dug it, and some blamed the churchwardens for suffering such a frightful thing, telling them they were making preparations to bury the whole parish, and the like; but time made it appear the churchwardens knew the condition of the parish better than they did, for the pit being finished the 4th of September, I think, they began to bury in it the 6th, and by the 20th, which was just two weeks, they had thrown into it 1,114 bodies when they were obliged to fill it up, the bodies being then come to lie within six feet of the surface. …
It was about the 10th of September that my curiosity led, or rather drove, me to go and see this pit again, when there had been near 400 people buried in it; and I was not content to see it in the daytime, as I had done before, for then there would have been nothing to have been seen but the loose earth; for all the bodies that were thrown in were immediately covered with earth by those they called the buriers, which at other times were called bearers; but I resolved to go in the night and see some of them thrown in.
There was a strict order to prevent people coming to those pits, and that was only to prevent infection. But after some time that order was more necessary, for people that were infected and near their end, and delirious also, would run to those pits, wrapt in blankets or rugs, and throw themselves in, and, as they said, bury themselves. I cannot say that the officers suffered any willingly to lie there; but I have heard that in a great pit in Finsbury, in the parish of Cripplegate, it lying open then to the fields, for it was not then walled about, [some] came and threw themselves in, and expired there, before they threw any earth upon them; and that when they came to bury others and found them there, they were quite dead, though not cold.
This may serve a little to describe the dreadful condition of that day, though it is impossible to say anything that is able to give a true idea of it to those who did not see it, other than this, that it was indeed very, very, very dreadful, and such as no tongue can express.
I got admittance into the churchyard by being acquainted with the sexton who attended, who, though he did not refuse me at all, yet earnestly persuaded me not to go, telling me very seriously, for he was a good, religious, and sensible man, that it was indeed their business and duty to venture, and to run all hazards, and that in it they might hope to be preserved; but that I had no apparent call to it but my own curiosity, which, he said, he believed I would not pretend was sufficient to justify my running that hazard. I told him I had been pressed in my mind to go, and that perhaps it might be an instructing sight, that might not be without its uses. “Nay,” says the good man, “if you will venture upon that score, name of God go in; for, depend upon it, ’t will be a sermon to you, it may be, the best that ever you heard in your life. ’T is a speaking sight,” says he, “and has a voice with it, and a loud one, to call us all to repentance;” and with that he opened the door and said, “Go, if you will.”
His discourse had shocked my resolution a little, and I stood wavering for a good while, but just at that interval I saw two links come over from the end of the Minories, and heard the bellman, and then appeared a dead-cart, as they called it, coming over the streets; so I could no longer resist my desire of seeing it, and went in. There was nobody, as I could perceive at first, in the churchyard, or going into it, but the buriers and the fellow that drove the cart, or rather led the horse and cart; but when they came up to the pit they saw a man go to and again, muffled up in a brown cloak, and making motions with his hands under his cloak, as if he was in a great agony, and the buriers immediately gathered about him, supposing he was one of those poor delirious or desperate creatures that used to pretend, as I have said, to bury themselves. He said nothing as he walked about, but two or three times groaned very deeply and loud, and sighed as he would break his heart.
When the buriers came up to him they soon found he was neither a person infected and desperate, as I have observed above, or a person distempered in mind, but one oppressed with a dreadful weight of grief indeed, having his wife and several of his children all in the cart that was just come in with him, and he followed in an agony and excess of sorrow. He mourned heartily, as it was easy to see, but with a kind of masculine grief that could not give itself vent by tears; and calmly defying the buriers to let him alone, said he would only see the bodies thrown in and go away, so they left importuning him. But no sooner was the cart turned round and the bodies shot into the pit promiscuously, which was a surprise to him, for he at least expected they would have been decently laid in, though indeed he was afterwards convinced that was impracticable; I say, no sooner did he see the sight but he cried out aloud, unable to contain himself. I could not hear what he said, but he went backward two or three steps and fell down in a swoon. The buriers ran to him and took him up, and in a little while he came to himself, and they led him away to the Pie Tavern over against the end of Houndsditch, where, it seems, the man was known, and where they took care of him. He looked into the pit again as he went away, but the buriers had covered the bodies so immediately with throwing in earth, that though there was light enough, for there were lanterns, and candles in them, placed all night round the sides of the pit, upon heaps of earth, seven or eight, or perhaps more, yet nothing could be seen.
This was a mournful scene indeed, and affected me almost as much as the rest; but the other was awful and full of terror. The cart had in it sixteen or seventeen bodies; some were wrapt up in linen sheets, some in rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart, and they fell quite naked among the rest; but the matter was not much to them, or the indecency much to any
one else, seeing they were all dead, and were to be huddled together into the common grave of mankind, as we may call it, for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together; there was no other way of burials, neither was it possible there should, for coffins were not to be had for the prodigious numbers that fell in such a calamity as this…
I had some little obligations, indeed, upon me to go to my brother’s house, which was in Coleman Street parish, and which he had left to my care, and I went at first every day, but afterwards only once or twice a week.
In these walks I had many dismal scenes before my eyes, as particularly of persons falling dead in the streets, terrible shrieks and screechings of women, who, in their agonies, would throw open their chamber windows and cry out in a dismal, surprising manner. It is impossible to describe the variety of postures in which the passions of the poor people would express themselves. ...
People in the rage of the distemper, or in the torment of their swellings, which was indeed intolerable, running out of their own government, raving and distracted, and oftentimes laying violent hands upon themselves, throwing themselves out at their windows, shooting themselves, etc.; mothers murdering their own children in their lunacy, some dying of mere grief as a passion, some of mere fright and surprise without any infection at all, others frighted into idiotism and foolish distractions, some into despair and lunacy, others into melancholy madness. ... 
I heard of one infected creature who, running out of his bed in his shirt in the anguish and agony of his swellings, of which he had three upon him, got his shoes on and went to put on his coat; but the nurse resisting, and snatching the coat from him, he threw her down, ran over her, ran downstairs and into the street, directly to the Thames in his shirt, the nurse running after him, and calling to the watch to stop him; but the watchman, frighted at the man, and afraid to touch him, let him go on; upon which he ran down to the Stillyard stairs, threw away his shirt, and plunged into the Thames, and, being a good swimmer, swam quite over the river; and the tide being coming in, as they call it, that is, running westward, he reached the land not till he came about the Falcon stairs, where landing, and finding no people there, it being in the night, he ran about the streets there, naked as he was, for a good while, when, it being by that time high water, he takes the river again, and swam back to the Stillyard, landed, ran up the streets again to his own house, knocking at the door, went up the stairs and into his bed again; and that this terrible experiment cured him of the plague, that is to say, that the violent motion of his arms and legs stretched the parts where the swellings he had upon him were, that is to say, under his arms and his groin, and caused them to ripen and break, and that the cold of the water abated the fever in his blood.
Comprehension: Recall and Interpret
1.Why does the narrator want to visit the Aldgate burial pit at night?
2.Why does the sexton try to prevent the narrator from entering the burial grounds?
3.What horrors does the narrator witness during regular walks to his brother’s house?
Literary Analysis: Evaluate and Connect
4. Make Inferences About the NarratorReread lines 20–43. Is the narrator compassionate, aggressive, or some combination of these? Support your answer with specific details.
5. Interpret Imagery and MoodFind several examples of sensory imagery—or words and phrases that appeal to the senses—in lines 1–19. What overall mood, or atmosphere, do these vivid images help create?
6. Analyze VerisimilitudeReread lines 69–109, about the narrator’s encounter with the desperate man. What aspects of verisimilitude make the most impact in this scene?
7. Draw ConclusionsLook over the inferencesyou recorded as you read the selection. Summarize the effects of the plagueon the following people. What social customs and institutions did the epidemic of 1665 alter or destroy? Support your conclusion with evidence from the text.
• family members
8. Make JudgmentsDefoe published A Journal of the Plague Year in 1722, just decades after the actual epidemic struck London. Do you think that Defoe’s original readers, many of whom had experienced the plague firsthand, would have approved of his fictional account? Why or why not?
9. Compare TextsCompare Defoe’s work with The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Which author presents the more memorable account of London during the Restoration? Cite details from the texts to support your response.
10. Historical ContextIn Defoe’s day, any advice doctors might offer on what caused disease was based on suspicion and guesswork. How might modern society’s response to a widespread outbreak of disease differ from the response Defoe describes in A Journal of the Plague Year?
11. Writing About LiteratureWrite several paragraphs analyzing the effectiveness of the first-person point of view in this piece. With this point of view, the narrator brings the reader immediately into a story and seems to be talking directly to the reader. What does this point of view contribute to the work? What do we know about the narrator from the way he presents his account?
12. Creative WritingThe events described by the narrator are vivid and dramatic—perfect fodder for a movie. Imagine that you are directing a dramatization of A Journal of the Plague Year. Whom would you cast as the narrator? Where would your shoot the film? How do you envision the plot unfolding? Write notes about the actors, locations, and basic story line for your movie.
Reading Focus III: from The Rape of the Lock
(Poem by Alexander Pope)
KEY IDEA All of us are susceptible to occasional bouts of vanity. Some people find it difficult to resist a chance to gaze lovingly at themselves in a mirror or talk at length about their favorite subject—themselves. In The Rape of the Lock, Pope holds up a different kind of mirror, one that he hoped would prompt people to take a more critical look at themselves.
Before Reading: Meet Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
As a poet and satirist, Alexander Pope was unrivaled during the early 18th century. Revered for his masterful use of the heroic couplet, Pope influenced the literature of the first half of the 18th century so undeniably that the time period is sometimes called the Age of Pope.
A Precocious PoetPope was raised as a Roman Catholic during a period in England’s history when only Protestants could obtain a university education or hold public office. For this reason, he was largely self-taught. Pope was an exceptional youth; by the time he was 17, his poems were being read and admired by many of England’s best literary critics.
At the age of 12, Pope developed tuberculosis of the spine, possibly from drinking contaminated milk. The tuberculosis stunted his growth (he never grew taller than four feet six inches) and permanently deformed his spine. Pope’s illness limited the amount of physical activity he could engage in, which may have contributed to his early devotion to reading and writing.
Fame and FortunePope’s most celebrated work, The Rape of the Lock, appeared in 1712, when he was only 24. Poetry, however, did not pay the bills. Pope was a neoclassicist, modeling his writing on the works of ancient Greece and Rome, which stressed balance, order, rationality, and sophisticated wit. As a great admirer of classical poetry, he took on the task of translating Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. It was an enormous amount of work, but the money he made on the project made him financially independent—a luxury most poets of his day did not enjoy.
Did you know that Alexander Pope . . .
• was run over by a wild cow when he was three years old?
• suffered from poor health and once said that his life had been a “long disease”?
• wrote the first two cantos of The Rape of the Lock in less than two weeks?
Good Friends and Cruel EnemiesPope was a member of the exclusive Scriblerus Club, a group of writers affiliated with the Tory political party who dedicated themselves to exposing the pretensions and affectations of literary society through satire. Other members of the club included his good friends John Gay and Jonathan Swift. Although Pope’s poetry was widely admired, he was often the object of criticism from less talented writers who attacked his religion, politics, and, most cruelly, his physical appearance.
Pope’s satire grew more biting as he aged, and he articulated his views on England’s political and literary leaders in many of his later works. Pope died shortly after his 56th birthday and was buried near his parents in Twickenham, the rural town where he had spent the latter half of his life.