English professor explores parallels of Defoe's Plague Year

Daniel Defoe

Professor Paula Backscheider is the Philpott-Stevens Eminent Scholar and author of Daniel Defoe: His Life. Defoe’s book, A Journal of the Plague Year, has recently come to the forefront of many literary discussions as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Backscheider explains how Defoe’s 1722 historical novel parallels our own situation today, nearly 300 years later. Here is Paula Backscheider, in her own words…


Paula Backscheider One of the two best-known accounts of plagues is A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. I edited that book for W.W. Norton & Company, and it includes contextualizing material going back to Thucydides in c. 430 b.c. People often ask if it is “history” and how much of it is true. Defoe was a very young child when the great plague of 1665 struck London; it killed approximately 97,000 people. His family lived in the one of the hardest parishes in London. He probably remembered little about it, but he certainly heard about it from family and other survivors.  His novel gives a detailed account of living through the plague that is strikingly like our behavior in the midst of Covid-19. Defoe as a life-long journalist collected anecdotes and he did research. One of his major sources was a book by the pioneering statistician, John Graunt, who published Reflections on the Weekly Bills of Mortality in 1665. Every chapter or so, as the plague moves across London in the story, Defoe gives the statistics week by week, as “St. Giles, Cripplegate (his parish)---554 ; Clerkenwell--- 103.” If you are following the day-by-day statistics or the peak prediction graphs, you are doing what Defoe was providing.

There are important similarities between what he did and today. One of Defoe’s reasons for writing the novel was to warn his fellow citizens. Every issue of the London papers beginning three years before the publication of A Journal of the Plague Year had been reporting on outbreaks of the plague on the continent. Between 40,000 and 60,000 alone had died in Marseilles, France—and we knew about China and Italy.

Defoe uses anecdotes to tell people how to prepare and then what he believes “best practices” are during the plague. In one anecdote, a father stays on a boat on the Thames and comes out to get food and necessities which he delivers to the porch for his family in an obvious attempt to keep them safe—and he does. He wrote of houses of the ill being sealed with a red cross painted on the door. He covered how people endangered each other, and he modeled exemplary behavior of city administrators, ministers, and health care people. Another research source for him were a collection of sermons by a brave preacher who chose to stay in London and preached every day.

This book is journalistic history, but it is also a novel with a riveting narrator who wants to understand the causes of the plague, as we do. It comes at a major moment in intellectual history: between the strong religious beliefs of people in the Renaissance and the birth of the Scientific Revolution marked by such things as the Royal Society with thinkers like Isaac Newton. Defoe’s narrator is a man who decides to stay and “witness” in spite of advice to leave and the fact that almost all who could did in London. He is grippingly driven to try to decide if the plague is the will of God, even sent by God (which would be the older religious belief), or if there are scientific explanations that would explain how it started and spread, how people could protect themselves from it, and how it might be treated humanely and effectively and prevented in the future.  The narrator collects evidence, ponders, sorts, builds scientific hypotheses and then rejects them. In addition to observations, he is a prime subject of his own research, and the novel ends, “A dreadful Plague in London was, /Which swept an Hundred Thousand Souls Away;/ yet I alive.”  This ending records the massive death rate and the fact that the narrator has no idea why he survived. It would be 1894 before the bacillus Yersinia pestis was discovered and that it is carried by rat fleas; even today, it is almost always fatal.

Defoe takes up other topics that we are pondering: the limits of public authority, the rights and treatment of the diseased, the government’s responsibility to finance health care, the pressures of compassion, and, horribly, as in New York City now, what to do with the unexpected numbers of bodies. The book has been praised from its first publication for giving the sense of the confused, accumulating deaths of hundreds and sharper moments of individual images from anecdotes, memories, and fictional stories, such as that of a man given charity lodging in the garret of an inn and – to the the horror of all there – being found dead the next morning, and of a pregnant woman whom a friend greeted with a kiss, sentencing her to weeks of terror. From Defoe’s lifetime as a reporter, came a shocking, realistic account from a narrator who knew he needed to stay safely inside but, driven to try to understand, could not stop himself from walking the streets. 

For more commentary from Paula Backscheider on Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, go to the BBC:  


Paula R. Backscheider, Philpott-Stevens Eminent Scholar, specializes in Restoration and eighteenth-century literature, feminist criticism, and cultural studies. An award winning teacher, her most recent recognitions are the Student Government Association Outstanding Graduate Faculty Member and the Distinguished Graduate Faculty Award given jointly by the Graduate School and the Alumni Association. She is the author of several books including Daniel Defoe: His Life (winner of the British Council Prize); Spectacular Politics; Reflections on Biography; Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (winner of the Modern Language Association Lowell Prize); and Elizabeth Singer Rowe and the Development of the English Novel. A former president of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, she has held ACLS, NEH, and Guggenheim Fellowships and is one of the few American members of the Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Edinburgh.



Last Updated: April 23, 2020