The Voice of the Plague: Disorder, Order, and Talk In Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year

Michael Sayeau

<1> At the opening of his seminal chapter on panopticism in Discipline and Punish, Foucault transcribes a set of “measures to be taken when the plague appeared in a town” during late seventeenth-century France. The story he tells would not be unfamiliar to readers of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. It is a tale of the struggle of the forces of order against a rising tide of disorder; a struggle whose attention somehow constantly slips from the control of the plague to the administration of its human bearers. The world of the plague is a world turned upside down. The private home is turned into a prison, the private citizen into a prisoner. Everyday life goes into lock-down, and measures such as constant surveillance, quarantine, and statistical registration –- measures which prefigure the panoptic society that is modernity for Foucault –- come into effect:

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted into a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the center and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead –- all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism.[1]

<2> Certainly, as many critics have argued, Defoe’s description of London during the “great visitation” of 1665 demonstrates a situation that is in many senses deeply parallel to that described by Foucault. For instance, John Bender, in his persuasive chapter on the Journal in Imagining the Penitentiary, asserts that “Defoe adopts the conceit that fully deployed legal authority in the city turns its houses into prisons and its citizens into criminals,” a system whose logic can be inverted in the justification of the penitentiary, which “make[s] citizens of criminals.”[2] Bender and Foucault posit the plague-year as moment of turning the inside out; a moment when disciplinary power is translated from the external threat of the state upon the individual’s body to the constitution of the subject himself through the internalization of the panoptic gaze. It is the moment when the doors begin to be locked from the outside, when the gaze of the syndic penetrates every window. And it is the moment, at least in Foucault and Bender, when the production of the private –- but ordered, efficient, self-conscious -– subject replaces the disorganized individual.

<3> It is undeniable that Defoe’s account of the plague year of 1665 shares Foucault’s interest in the evolution of structures of social control and subject-formation during the visitation. Still, for all its similarities to Foucault’s work in terms of subject matter and thematic preoccupations, it remains clear that the Journal is far from a “Foucauldian” work. It is not simply a question, either, of political affiliation or temporal location. It is my argument in this paper that Defoe’s fiction in effect fills in a hole in Foucault’s analysis of power and discipline. This “hole” is the gap between the negative delimitation of agency by disciplinary structures and the fact that life goes on at all. After all, when Foucault describes his plague-subject locked in “a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment,” we must ask ourselves, why then does the individual take the risk? Why move at all? Both works attempt to describe the points of contact between the material world and the realm of the “immaterial” -– especially how the latter structures the former. Yet it is clear that in Foucault, the forces of order are ascendant; whereas in Defoe, the chaotic, the irrational, and the human stage a paradoxically healthy resistance to foreclosure by power and knowledge. The Journal depicts a world that bustles with activity despite the miasmic presence of death in the very air. Defoe’s London teems with human living, even if it is a living-unto-death. In sum, while Foucault’s deployment of the plague is a convincing description of the embryonic period of the penetrations of discipline into the micro-practices of everyday life, it is perhaps no more convincing than Defoe’s evocation of the plague-year as a moment of variation, difference, and individual agency.

Absence of Biological Death in the Journal

<4> There certainly are many moments when the Journal, or, in particular, its central character and narrator, H.F., lends itself handily to the reading advanced by the critics cited above. H.F. does after all himself serve as an examiner in service of the quarantine, and expounds upon, for instance, the plague’s efficiency in eliminating what he calls “the useless mouths” of London. Above all else, what are we to make of the narrator’s recurrent description of his work as a memento mori of sorts for post-plague readers, the assertion that his guiding principle is, as he puts it, a sense

that a near view of death would soon reconcile men of good principles one to another, and that it is chiefly owing to our easy situation in life and our putting these things far from us that our breaches are fomented, ill blood continued, prejudices, breach of charity and of Christian union, so much kept and so far carried on among us as it is.[3]

<5> But does the Journal to hold true to this self-assigned use-value, this equation of the representation of death and emergence self-discipline? But what of the “near view of death” that is promised, but never delivered, in the Journal -– a near view of “real” death by plague, of simple bodily death that begins with shivering and a headache, moves through photo-sensitivity and back pain, and concludes with an elevated pulse, a high fever, vomiting, delirium and then death in seventy percent of the cases?

<6> In short, instead of bodily death, biological death, Defoe presents us with a baroque pornography of mortality, death by imagination, a plague of madness and fantasies. One by one, the Journal catalogues these casualties by news and for news. A mother dies, for instance, at the very sight of her daughters corpse. In many cases, plague-madness beats the plague-bacteria to the punch, transforming a painful bodily death into a frantic (and sexualized) suicide: “Some broke into the streets, perhaps naked, and would run directly down to the river if they were not stopped by the watchman or other officers, and plunge themselves into the water wherever they found it.” The eventual death of those who run mad about the streets is attributed not to bodily failure but spiritual exhaustion; individuals are far more likely to throw themselves into the river, hang themselves, or die of fright in Defoe’s representation of the plague, than die passively of the physical disease. The following catalogue of extravagant demises expands from its origin in the description of a single plague victim to illuminate an entire infernal economy of madness and violence:

[I]t is scarce credible what dreadful cases happened in particular families every day. People in the rage of the distemper, or in the torment of their swellings, which was indeed intolerable, running out of their own government, raving and distracted, and oftentimes laying violent hands upon themselves, throwing themselves out at their windows, shooting themselves, &c.; mothers murdering their own children in their lunacy, some dying of mere grief as a passion, some of mere fright and surprise without any infection at all, others frighted into idiotism and foolish distractions, some into despair and lunacy, others into melancholy madness (99).

It is in passages such as this one that we can detect the juncture between fictional interest and the plague’s economy of death. The single non-story of a plague victim, the single injection of death into the social field, gives rise to an alliterative (“mothers murdering,” “melancholy madness,” etc) proliferation of fictions, a surplus of homicide, insanity, and familial mayhem. The plague gives rise counter-intuitively to vitality, action, and narrative, where we would expect only passivity and death. Finally, in a passage that seems to posture itself self-consciously in relation to the topos of the memento mori, H.F. describes a plague-victim dancing madly in the street:

It is hardly credible to what excess the passions of men carried them in this extremity of the distemper, and this part, I think, was as moving as the rest. What could affect a man in his full power of reflection, and what could make deeper impressions on the soul, than to see a man almost naked, and got out of his house, or perhaps out of his bed, into the street, come out of Harrow Alley ... I say, what could be more affecting than to see this poor man come out into the open street, run dancing and singing and making a thousand antic gestures, with five or six women and children running after him, crying and calling upon him for the Lord’s sake to come back, and entreating the help of others to bring him back, but all in vain, nobody daring to lay a hand upon him or to come near him (184).

That this scene could be thought to “affect a man in his full power of reflection,” “to make deeper impressions on the soul” than any other, marks a clear variation away from the functionality of plague-death as a device of Christian propaganda. Rather than a “close view of death,” the scene of the dancing man is a close view of life-unto-death, a burst of vitality before expiration. If the plague-time is, according to Foucault and certain moments of the Journal, the dawning of the period of civically organized privacy and publicly mandated sanity, Defoe simultaneously casts the plague itself as an agent that pushes the citizenry out of doors, out of regularity and regulation, to dance naked in the streets. The plague in the Journal is as much a disease of life as a death-sentence, or perhaps is the resistance of life under the sentence. It is “a thousand antic gestures” no matter what the neighbors think, despite the acknowledged and inevitable consequence.

The Pit

<7> But what about the claim, that several critics have advanced, that H.F., the narrator of the story, himself embodies an island of order within the infected metropolis? While H.F. certainly provides a “center” of sorts within a chaotic world, it is less clear that this center can be arrayed quite so cleanly as an agent of form and organization in its struggle with disorder. Economic lines of reasoning blur into theological speculation and vice versa, and what John Bender calls “representation in the face of endless disordered perception” is plagued by deeper questions of interest and desire than his rendition would suggest.

<8> While there are numerous examples of the effect that I am trying to describe, perhaps none is so clear, or clearly complicated, as the narrator’s visit to the burial pit at Aldgate. This mass grave in the churchyard of St. Botolphs, starts out with a capacity of 5700 cubic feet but is eventually expanded to a volume of nearly 13,000 cubic feet. And it is a site that H.F. strangely, perversely, feels he has to visit: “It was bout the 10th of September that my curiosity led, or rather drove, me to go and see this pit again, when there had been nearly 400 people buried in it.”

<9> The Aldgate episode takes on a tripartite structure, and each of the sections further complicates the notions of death and representation at play in the incident. First of all, there is the peculiar language of the sexton, who describes the pit, over and again, as a “speaking sight,” a material object somehow imbued with language, with discourse:

‘Nay,’ says the good man, ‘if you will venture upon that score, name of God go in; for, depend upon it, ‘twill be a sermon to you, it may be, the best that ever you heard in your life. ‘Tis a speaking sight,’ says he, ‘and has a voice with it, and a loud one, to call us all to repentance’; and with that he opened the door and said, ‘Go, if you will’ (80).

Obviously, this passage is deeply consonant with the various moments in which death is hybridized, de-materialized in the Journal. The pit, so horrible that “it is impossible to give a true idea of it to those who did not see it, other than this, that it was indeed very, very, very dreadful, and such as no tongue can express,” is itself a well of speech, in spite of or perhaps because of its unspeakability. Beyond literary representation and irremediably absent from any narration, it nonetheless fills London’s streets with talk.

<10> In the second part of the scene, H.F.’s attention is diverted away from the pit itself and toward a man mourning his wife and children, plague-victims who are about to be thrown into the pit. Just as I noted earlier H.F.’s inability or reluctance to narrate real, biological plague deaths, H.F.’s focus before the “speaking sight” of the burial pit is once more turned away from the grim materiality of the dead bodies and toward a living “story” moving around the perimeter of the burial place. Once again, the interest here is in vital madness before the specter of death, the mourner’s exuberant execution of horrible despair in the form of tears, defiance of the buriers, and hysterical collapse. Most importantly, the climax of the mourner’s graveside performance is the emission of wordless sound, of a voice beyond re-representation: “no sooner did he see the sight but he cried aloud, unable to contain himself. I could not hear what he said, but he went backward two or three steps and fell down in a swoon” (81). It is as if Defoe has translated the indefinable voice of the pit described by the sexton into this inaudible voice of the mourning man. Just as the bare materiality of the pit is transformed into a sermon, H.F.’s attention shifts from the “nothing [that] could be seen” in the pit towards the paradoxical positivity of the mourner’s bare yelp, his naked registration not of death, but of living toward death.

<11> Finally, after a brief passage that underscores the egalitarian destructiveness of the plague –- the bodies “were to be huddled together in the common grave of mankind,” where there is “no difference made, but rich and poor went together” [81]) -– H.F. comes to the final portion of his triptych of the Aldgate pit. “Shocked” and “overwhelmed” by what he has seen, he returns home, only to be queerly preoccupied with the image of the mourning man:

Here the poor unhappy gentleman’s grief came into my head again, and indeed I could not but shed tears in the reflection upon it, perhaps more than he did himself; but his case lay so heavy upon my mind that I could not prevail with myself, but that I must go out again into the street, and go to the Pie Tavern, resolving to inquire what became of him (82).

How is it that H.F.’s reflection upon the man could prompt him to shed tears, “perhaps more than [the mourner] himself”? What is about the horror and despair of the scene that prompts the narrator to seek it out again, to seek out another exposure? The perverse motivation implied in this paragraph mirror the strange “curiosity” that motivated H.F. to seek out the burial pit in the first place. While the answers to these questions remain indistinct, it is nonetheless clear that the terror of the plague inspires action, especially action against the grain of pragmatic normality.

<12> Once at the Pie Tavern, where he had seen the grave-diggers bring the mourning man, H.F.’s attention shifts again. Rather than attending to the “poor gentleman,” the remainder of this section of the Journal focuses on a group of impudent revelers, who,

In the middle of all this horror, met there every night, behaved with all the reveling and roaring extravagances as is usual for such people to do at other times, and, indeed, to such an offensive degree that the very master and mistress of the house grew first ashamed and then terrified of them (82).

H.F. first hears these fellows express anger that the mourning man “be brought out of the grave into their house,” and then, when they have learned of the fate of the man’s family, ridicule him for his sorrow and taunt “him with want of courage to leap into the great pit and go to heaven” (83). When H.F. reproves them for their insolence, they answer him with more “hellish, abominable raillery ... horrid oaths, curses, and vile expressions” (84). Their particular aptitude is in the field of blasphemy, especially blasphemy against the plague as a judgment of God. H.F. finds them “mocking, even laughing, at the word judgment, as if the providence of God had no concern in the inflicting such a desolating stroke.” Most importantly, H.F. notes that their carnivalesque flouting of disciplinary forces and norms of piety is not so much a preexisting phenomenon, but one which rises up in response and resistance to the plague itself: they “were only roused by the spirit of ribaldry and atheism at the clamour which was made when the gentleman was first brought in there, and perhaps were agitated by the same devil, when I took upon me to reprove them” (86). What seems to be so unsettling to H.F., above all, is the “unnaturalness,” the inconsistency, of their blasphemy during the plague-time, their failure to live as if already dead, to act in such a way as to acknowledge the inevitability of death.

<13> The perversity of the actions and words of the revelers causes a rupture in H.F.’s ability to order subjectively the chaos of the plague. This rupture first takes the form of contemplation of an age-old quandary: the mysterious relation between piety and morality. Despite the fact, as he acknowledges,

that many good people would, and did, fall in the common calamity, and that it was no certain rule to judge of the eternal state of any one by their being distinguished in such a time of general destruction neither one way or other. (86)

H.F. nonetheless remains confident that divine retribution will fall upon the blasphemers. It “could not but seem reasonable,” he believes, “to believe that God would not think fit to spare by His mercy such open declared enemies” (86). The plague strikes without bias, yet how could divine justice be worthy of its name if it does not distinguish between the virtuous and the impious? This paradox is left undecided in the mind of the narrator, weighs heavily upon him as he returns home, and prompts consideration in turn of another field of uncertainty: “I was doubtful in my thoughts whether the resentment I retained was not all upon my own private account, for they had given me a great deal of ill language too.” Having experienced in himself such a welling up of emotion in response to the words of the men at the tavern, H.F. begins to suspect his own motivations. We note that the implicit opposition here is between the “private account” of the self and what would be a more universal, more “public,” sense of right and wrong. The ultimate epistemological crux in the Journal emerges as the difficulty of defining the self, either as a hidden site of autonomous, self-interested, thought and action, or as an element in the world-machine of divine Providence. As H.F. says at the end of the scene, the question is “how to distinguish between their zeal for the honour of God and the effects of their private passions and resentment.” He is able to resolve this uncertainty, this plaguing doubt, only through recourse to “duty, namely, to pray for those who despitefully used me,” a distinctly unconvincing resolution of this profound moment of metaphysical panic.

<14> In the scene at and after the Aldgate pit, then, we observe H.F. as he enters into a dialectical spin cycle of sorts. Far from ending in the triumph of the ordering self over the disorder of the plagued city, the stability of H.F.’s very subjectivity is called into question. His own sense of individual agency is problematized. Moving from his perverse curiosity about the plague pit, toward his disturbed reflections on his own piety and the efficacy of divine justice, the Journal once again troubles the usual distinctions between language and matter, disease and discourse. As we have seen, while the centerpiece of this section is meant to be the mass grave at Aldgate, it is “impossible to say anything that is able to give a true idea of it to those who did not see it” (79). The unspeakable, indescribable plague-pit instead appears as a catalyst of other descriptions -– that of the mourning man, the revelers at the Pie Tavern, and ultimately of H.F.’s “discussion” with himself. His attention, and thus that of the Journal itself, is turned as if necessarily from the dead to the quick, and especially toward the language of the latter: the solemn words of the sexton, the inarticulate cry of the mourner, and of course the blasphemous raillery of the fellows at the tavern. In this way, even the moment of the most sustained attention on death, the Journal cannot help but expose the plague as a vital, and vitally social, phenomenon.

<15> Rather than a description, then, of the plague time as a period in which spontaneity is organized and thus foreclosed by the forces of discipline, Defoe’s work presents an uncanny acceleration of activity in the face of death. In so many cases, we have seen that the Journal’s energies are devoted more to expressing the instability of its subject matter and the narrator’s inability to organize a consistent “account” of his own situation, let alone to prescribe a course of action for his readers. And of course this destabilization is not simply a problem of narration. Rather, as I have attempted to show, the work erects in parallel the disordered order of the world at hand and the disorganization of our perspective upon it, that of H.F’s discourse. The work stands as a reflection of the rapidly destabilizing world that signals the advent what one might call modernity, a modernity which has begun to reinterpret the memento mori that is life itself. This work that stands at the beginning of the story of the novel in English already takes the form of a realism that reflects the world described by Marx, a world wherein “the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race.”[4] Unlike Foucault’s plague town, with “Everyone locked up in his cage, everyone at his window, answering to his name and showing himself when asked,” Defoe’s London is a city of the naked man dancing in the street, and more importantly, a city that speaks what the plague is saying to him as he dances.


[1] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977), 197. [^]

[2] John Bender, “The City and the Rise of the Penitentiary: A Journal of the Plague Year,” A Journal of the Plague Year: Authoritative Texts, Backgrounds, Contexts, Criticism, ed. Paula R. Backsheider (New York: Norton, 1992), 328. [^]

[3] Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year being observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences, as well public as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665, eds. Anthony Burgess and Christopher Bristow (New York: Penguin, 1966), 188. Citations of this volume will appear henceforth parenthetically within the body of my text. [^]

[4] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Ernest Mandel (New York: Vintage, 1977), 165. [^]