it is astonishing how contemporary a book published three hundred and forty-seven years ago can feel. the history of the story is fact, but in this case, the telling is fiction.
simply as a story, Defoe’s book is a marvelous tale. this instance of the plague imperiled half a million people directly, and killed (at least) one in five outright. Defoe ratchets up a sense of dread via the rather unusual means of quoting statistics: numbers of the dead in each parish, steadily rising. readers of his time would have known that the final count of the dead would rise to 100,000 in London alone.
imagine how it must have felt–there is a contagion loose whose cause is unknown, whose early symptoms can be invisible, and whose survival rate is exceedingly low. you cannot know how to protect yourself, or whether protection is even possible; who among your daily intercourse might be carriers; how this affliction may be transmitted. the only certainty is that if you are infected, you will probably die, because there is no cure at all, nor any treatment guaranteed to have any effect whatsoever. imagine how it must have felt, seeing the “Tokens” of the plague on your spouse or your children, then; their death would almost certainly be your own.
where can you go to be safe?
this is the atmosphere Defoe’s novel quite thoroughly communicates–a surfeit of random death and survival not of the wealthiest, or the craftiest, or the most prescient, but only of the luckiest.
horror abounds in the book, told not in sensationalist but in almost reportorial style: just the facts, because the facts are quite horrifying enough. Defoe shows us quite heartbreaking scenes from the personal level: the man who goes mad, finding he’s infected his own family; the man who is exiled from his infected family, but returns daily to give them the proceeds of his labor (from a distance), that they will not starve; the nurses who are shut up in houses with the infected, to be relieved of their charges only upon their recovery or death.
yet Defoe attends also to the Bigger Picture items–the response of the government, the efforts of the clergy and of physicians, the failings and successes of the law, and even the effects on international trade. the book is, in microcosm, a primer on how individuals and nations respond to an unknowable cataclysm.
the book is surprisingly accessible in terms of language and thought, for those unnerved by reading The Old Stuff–you won’t find it an incomprehensible jumble of subordinate clauses.
but if you can read it without your heart breaking for both the dead and the survivors… you are made of entirely different stuff than i.