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A Journal of the Plague Year

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A Journal of the Plague Year
By Daniel Defoe. (Penguin Classics; Revised Edition: 2003. Pg. 336.) ISBN: 0140437851

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness

In 1663, the plague returned to Holland, and by December of 1664, it was in London. The plague that began to traverse Europe in 1663 was the same dreaded disease that had swept like a firestorm through Europe in 1656 - Bubonic Plague. Also known as the Black Death or the Black Plague, Bubonic plague is caused by the bacillus, Yersinia pestis. This is primarily a zoonotic (animal) disease that afflicts rodents, smaller animals such as cats, and even birds. Humans, however, can be infected if they are bitten by fleas who have, previously, feasted on infected animals. Humans can also contract the plague by handling infected animals, or directly from a human who has the pulmonary form of plague.

Yersinia pestis is endemic the world over, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average, 1,000 - 3,000 people contract bubonic plague each year, of which, 10-15 of these cases occur in the United States. Thanks to modern antibiotics, it is now a treatable disease.

However, when bubonic plague ravished Europe during the middle ages, there were no treatments, and for some reason, the waves of plague that swept Europe starting in 1348 where especially virulent. The first wave, which started in 1348, is thought to have originated in the Far East. What is known, is that it arrived in Europe on trading ships, along with other trade goods from the Orient. This first wave killed upwards to half the population of Europe. Death by plague is agonizing, and it is not pretty. Worse, during major epidemics, it was difficult, if not impossible, to bury all the dead in a timely manner, and the plethora of rotting corpses bred more diseases which decimated an already weakened population. In the years that followed the first major epidemic, hardly a generation escaped the deathly grip of the plague. The last major plague epidemic in Europe petered out in the late 1600's. However, it has never gone away, and the possibility still exists that it may, once again, turn into a deadly scourge.

A Journal of the Plague Year, is Daniel Defoe's chilling account of the year 1665 and the deadly scythe that the Black Death cut through London and its surrounding environs. The 1665 epidemic was the third, and last, major plague epidemic to strike London, and it killed nearly 17,500 people. (At the time the population of London is thought to have been around 93,000 people.) This epidemic may have been even more deadly, but the great fire of London, in 1666, cut the epidemic short by destroying the host vector - the infected rats.

Starting with the advent of a new plague outbreak of bubonic plague in Holland in 1664, A Journal of the Plague Year offers a glimpse of the terrifying reality what happens to a city when it is attacked by an invisible force, one which the inhabitants have no weapons or means with which to resist. This book was originally published in 1722, and it is written from the view point of a gentleman who stayed in London during the entirety of the epidemic. It chronicles the first instance when he heard that plague was abroad in Holland, and his hope that it would stay there. As well as his chilling realization that it had, indeed, reared its head in London.

Reading almost like a diary, this book details the day to day life in a plague-ravaged city - the fear, the hope, and the hopelessness as events spiral out of control. Although a work of fiction, it is well based in fact. Defoe uses all of his literary talents to present an authentic look at the effect that a virulent epidemic can have on an individual that witnesses its advance, and on a population as a whole. Defoe also clearly illustrates the horrors that the plague caused, ranging from the grotesque disfigurement of its victims, to the stomach wrenching stench of the corpses. He also does an excellent job of conveying the fear engendered by the knowledge that the Black Death is indiscriminate when it comes to choosing it victims. High born or low, elder or child, virile young men, and beautiful, healthy women all succumbed to the evil that stalked the London streets.

A Journal of the Plague Year is both a work of classical literature and a psychological treatise that deals with how people deal with disaster, and how it can affect their religious beliefs. Defoe is an excellent writer whose forte was detailed descriptions of the scenes and people he is describing, a skill that is put to excellent use in this novel. This book will not only interest the general reader, but it will also be of interest to students of history, literature, and psychology.

Related Reviews:

The Great Plague, By Stephen Porter
A energetic account of the Bubonic Plague epidemic of 1665-66 and the effect that it had on English society.

The Great Plague - The Story of London's Most Deadly Year, by A. Lloyd Moote and Dorothy C. Moote.
An insightful account of the Great Plague of 1665 and the effect it had on the residents of London.

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