Reading A Journal of the Plague Year during the Lockdown

There are striking similarities between the Great Plague of London and the COVID-19 pandemic—in Daniel Defoe’s historical fiction, we see literature’s power to vividly capture human behaviour in times of crisis.

Recently, rearranging the books at home, I was thrilled to find Daniel Defoe’s historical novel A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). It was a serendipitous discovery of a book that describes the horrors of the Great Plague of London in 1665. Holed up at home, besieged by uncertainty and fear, reading this novel has given me a fresh perspective on the power of fiction to tell life’s
timeless truths. When Defoe began writing the Journal around 1709, his main intention was to warn the people of England against the next bout of plague from the Continent. Little did he know that his words would ring true even after three centuries. The reality Defoe portrays in his novel seems to have revisited the globe in 2020. Reflecting on it critically might teach us important lessons for the future.

The narrator begins by mentioning that the plague had returned to Holland in September 1664. As for its origins, he notes, “some said from Italy, others from the Levant ... others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus.” No one knew exactly from where it came, but everyone agreed that it had come from “somewhere” outside the country. In the case of the novel coronavirus, too, neither Italy, nor Spain, nor the United States (US) has definitively traced the virus’s origin, even though all fingers point at China. Any virus needs a carrier to move around, and those infected with it inadvertently spread it across the world. Therefore, human interaction, whether local or global, is still at the heart of epidemics and pandemics.

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Updated On : 15th Jun, 2020


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