Places: A Journal of the Plague Year

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as Well Publick as Private, Which Happened in London, During the Last Great Visitation in 1655, 1722

Type of work: Novel

Time of work: 1664-1665

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*London

*London. Journal of the Plague Year, ACapital of England. In the voice of his thorough and even brilliantly factual narrator, who is a middle-class businessman and maker of saddles, Defoe educates the reader about numerous urban details governing the eighty to one hundred square miles of London at the time of the story. The population then was nearly 500,000 people, of whom about 20 percent died from the plague in 1665. Perhaps the most lurid detail, which lends itself nicely to statistics and charts in the text, is the weekly toll of deaths recorded as the Bills of Mortality by parish vestries in each of the approximately 130 Church of England parishes in greater London. The walled city, which constitutes what was left of the old London of the Middle Ages, has the most parishes in number, but the parishes outside the walls cover more territory and, by the time of the plague, are densely populated. Furthermore, the reader learns about county government in greater London, which included magistrates in Westminster at the West End of London and outside the walls as well as what are called the liberties, or districts, within a county such as Middlesex, which have their own independent magistrates. It is a vast honeycomb of jurisdictions, government officials, and record keeping. Overall the government is fairly effective in disposing of the dead and, especially, in boarding up buildings and in posting official watchmen or guards so that the sick may not spread disease. Nevertheless, the statistics map the remarkable progress of the disease from the West End, over the northern parishes of greater London, finally reaching awful proportions in the East End and in the parishes south of the river. Defoe’s reader gets the sense that the narrator survives the plague not only because he is pious but also because his stoic and deterministic realism enables him to know greater London so well and to record what he knows with a matter-of-fact love of detail.

*Nearby counties

*Nearby counties. Unlike the narrator, who resolves to remain in London in order both to protect his business and to collect data, many people flee to live in small, isolated groups. They are forced to subsist in caves and deserted farmhouses in the woods and fields. The narrator hears reports from some who are eventually forced to come back to London for financial reasons. He also reports on some thirty small towns no farther out from London than twenty miles where the number of plague deaths is high.


*Oxford. University city to the northwest from London. Farther out from London than the nearby counties, this comfortable town that houses the ancient university is where members of the court of Charles II retreat to escape disease. They constitute a considerable body of people who usually live in London’s West End, in Westminster. Moving to Oxford saves them.

*River Thames

*River Thames (tehmz). England’s greatest river and London’s link to the sea. Merchant ships from Europe, especially from the Dutch low countries, which were fierce enemies of England at this time, are suspected of delivering plague. In fact, all vessels, friend and foe, are halted and wait downriver from London Bridge as far as Gravesend for many months. In addition, citizens of London flee to boats covered with awnings and furnished with straw in the middle of the river both downstream and upriver from London Bridge. The narrator depicts this broad water highway as both culprit and safe haven.

BibliographyBackscheider, Paula R. Daniel Defoe: His Life. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. Scholarly and well-written, this biography is remarkably detailed in every aspect of Defoe’s life and career. This refreshing cache of information is a work of history with few forays into literary criticism.Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. Edited by Paula Backscheider. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. This is the definitive modern edition of Defoe’s novel.Flanders, W. Austin. “Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and the Modern Urban Experience.” In Daniel Defoe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Max Byrd. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Investigates Defoe’s concern with the moral challenges that confront the urban dweller. Discusses Defoe’s imaginative exploration of those challenges.Nicholson, Watson. The Historical Sources of Defoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year.” Boston: Stratford, 1919. Illustrated by extracts from the original documents in the Burney collection and the manuscript room in the British Museum. Of particular importance are the excerpts from the original sources, which are included. The comparisons of the novel with actual events and the careful examination of the errors found in Defoe’s work offer an opportunity to scrutinize aspects of the novel that are often ignored by literary critics.Richetti, John J. Daniel Defoe. Boston: Twayne, 1987. An excellent introduction to Defoe’s life and works. Bibliography.Zimmerman, Everett. Defoe and the Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Chapter 5, “A Journal of the Plague Year: Fact and Fiction,” is a study of the evolution of Defoe’s style and in particular his reaction to the demands entailed in fictionalizing a recent historical event.
Categories: Places