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Pandemics in Perspective: Themes of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year

A thematic breakdown of the book A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe (1722)

Detail of the Penguin Classics Edition of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Following my notes (presented in the previous post) on the book A Journal of the Plague Year, which were quite extensive; the following is a categorization of the most significant themes I have discerned from those notes, which are quite concise.

The main categories of the themes are Societal Dynamics, Conduct of Authorities, and Psychological Effects—the first two being the most substantial and thus each being divided into subheadings.

Having completed this list of themes, I find that Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year* clearly reveals its striking relevance to 21st century occurrence of plague; and its breadth of insight – within its accessible, narrative form – testifies to its likely being the best book one can start with towards gaining a perspective on pandemics.

*The full text is in the public domain, and can be accessed for free at

Societal Dynamics


Prioritization of Self-Preservation (→ Dispensed with Love and Concern for Others)

Protection against Infection by Adornment of Proscribed/Superstitious Accessories and Ointments

Concealing of Symptoms due to Fear of Shunning and Confinement

Fleeing to the Country = Wealthier Class’ Safe Havens


Death by Abandonment (not by Infection) based on Prejudicial Discrimination

Cruel Behaviour and Criminal Practices taken Against the Sick

Publicly Prophesized DoomFrightened and Disordered Populace = Induced Apprehension

Fake Cures and Prophylactics = Exploitation of People’s Desperation (to Survive)

Abandonment of Civility and Humanity during Time of Calamity

Society’s Return to Uncouthness/Immorality following Thankfulness of Survival

Lower-Class Life

Poor Infected and Affected Far More than Anyone = Highly Disproportionate Class-Effects

Mass-UnemploymentCharitable Welfare State

Withdrawal of Public Support → Financial Plight of Survived Poor = Greater Dire Straits than in Plaguetime

Common Carelessness of Going Out in Public → Self-Caused Deaths

Extraordinary Circumstances

Unimaginable and Pervasive Horrors during Plague

Heartbreaking and Terrifying Cries of People in Extreme Pain and Spiritual Anguish → ‘Avoided Like the Plague’ (due to Fear and Futility)

Incredible Coincidence of Calamities = Plague/War/Famine/Environmental Disaster

Transformation of Atmosphere into Sadness and Concern

Desolation of Busiest Streets

Dissolution of Religious Congregation

Disruption of Trade between Countries → New Balance of Economic Power

Acclimatization to Alarm due to Intermittent Spread of Outbreak

Conduct of Authorities

Dissemination of Information

Societal ThreatImperative Collectivization by Mutual Sacrifices = Promoted Formula for Survival

Dishonesty of Authorities = Herd Management

Inherently Inaccurate Mortality Count

Promoted Theories of Maliciously Contaminous Infectees Infectee Stigmatization

Notion of Disease Carriers (‘Symptomless’) = Invisibility of PlagueWidespread Paranoia

Promotion of Climate Theory that Hot Weather is Favourable to Propagation of Contagion

Disinfection Methods Advised for Rooms and Possessions

Ultimate Mysteriousness of Plague Origin and Disappearance

Emergency Measures

Incredible Unpreparedness of AuthoritiesAvoidable Disaster

Assembling of Plaguetime Authorities for Public Health and Safety → Reestablishment of Order

Blockading of Towns → Unfreedom of Movement

Regulations of Contact between Areas and Nations

Reconvening of Buildings for Makeshift Cemeteries and Hospitals

Certificates of Health = Hyper-Regulation of Freedoms

Closure of Public Entertainments

Digging of GraveyardsMass Burial


Quarantine for Diseased and Suspected = Period of Time to Prove Oneself ‘Safe’

Forced Home Lock-Up of People, including the Well with the Sick = Quarantine by Association

Quarantine Selections based on Examiners’ Reports → Infection during Examination

Desperate Attempts to Escape Confinement

Psychological Effects

Stay-or-Leave Dilemma = Losses vs. Safety

Despair and Futility created by Mass Death

Ignorance of CommonersIncreased Foolishness of Thought and Behaviour during Opportunity for Reflection

Sight of DeathAwakening of Conscience (due to Proposition of Dying)

Author: Simon Kanzen

I value reading substantial literature, enjoy thought-provoking entertainment, and above all, I think every day. With Stepping Stones, I develop my thoughts in writing and share references to relevant media, intending for other readers and thinkers to find these writings useful.

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