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Class Distinctions in A Journal of the Plague Year
Defoe repeatedly returns to how different classes experienced the plague of 1660’s in his pseudo-journalistic account, A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe contrasts the experience of the poor and the “middling class” with that of the wealthy. His account answers a number of important questions. Were rich people was more immune from the plague. Was one class more responsible for spreading it? How did different classes respond to the pestilence? Given Defoe’s politics and personal circumstances (he was rumored to have died while hiding from creditors), his focus on class is hardly surprising. His unsparing journalist’s pen skewers both rich and poor alike and reveals much about class distinctions in the 17th century England.
Defoe contrasts how different classes are involved in the spread of disease. He begins by noting that “the plague was chiefly among the poor”. (68) Much of the spread of disease resulted from activities of the poor because they were “the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage”. (68) In “going about their employment”, the poor provided the few services that were available because merchandising, building and repair, navigation and many other businesses had come to a complete stop. Such jobs as were available often involved dealing with the sick – either through removal of bodies, guarding houses or nursing – which further spread contagion. Defoe is very specific on this point; he forcefully emphasizes “had it not been for the number of poor people who wanted employment”, the authorities “would never have found people to be employed. And then the bodies of the dead would have lain above ground”. (78) However, the rich were not entirely spared because they were often exposed to disease by their servants. Defoe notes that “the infection generally came into the houses of the citizens by their servants whom they [the wealthy] were obliged to send up and down the streets for necessaries; that is to say, for food or physic, to bakehouses, brewhouses, shops & c”. (56) Defoe speaks to the inevitability of cross-class contamination because servants met “with distemptered people, who conveyed the fatal breath into them and they brought it home to the families to which they belonged.” (56)
Different classes also responded differently to the threat of infection. The rich fled the cities into the presumably safer countryside 14). Once safely ensconced, they gave liberally to charities that helped the poor. Defoe’s repeatedly credits them for such charity – which underwrote important functions like removal of the dead and other activities that minimized infection or benefited those that remained behind. Curiously fleeing was an option only for those who could secure their houses. Defoe notes that those who fled “generally found some or other of their neighbours or relations to commit the charge of those houses” … “which were entirely locked up” (66) The middling classes and those without friends faced a different dilemma because they risked the loss of their livelihood if they fled. Defoe’s narrator was himself in this situation; the reader sees him struggling to balance suggestions to leave against what would happen if he lost his saddle shop – and with it, his entire means of livelihood. The choice to flee (and how to do without losing one’s livelihood) was not open to the poor. Rather, the poor relied upon soothsayers, amulets, and astrologers to avoid infection. The poor were also particularly vulnerable to quacks with “specious titles”, who peddled such preventatives as “infallible preventative pills against the plague’, ‘never-failing preservative against infection’, ‘sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air’” and other dubious potions. (23)
Regardless of class, those that stayed behind faced the issue of acquiring adequate provisions while simultaneously minimizing exposure. The rich and middling sorts achieved this goal by stocking up for the duration of the plague. Defoe’s narrator “went and bought two sacks of meal, and for several weeks, having an oven, we baked all our own bread; also I bought malt, and brewed as much been as all the casks I had would hold, and which seemed enough to serve my house for five or six weeks; also I laid in a quantity of salt butter and Cheshire cheese. (59) Once again, the poor had no such choices, but were required to go to market on a daily basis. This practice of daily marketing “brought an abundance of unsound people to the markets and a great many that thither brought death home with them”. (59)
Once infected, different classes also behaved differently. While Defoe does not describe the response of wealthy persons who fled the city, he does describe those that remained behind. In many areas, there was “a profound silence in the streets” (79)
Defoe describes people dying in their homes, generally with all their relatives and servants. This quiet illness and death contrasts sharply with the poor. Most peculiarly perhaps was “the wicked inclination” that Defoe observed “especially with respect to the poor” to intentionally infect others. Defoe struggles to provide an explanation for this behavior. This behavior – and other behaviors such as infected people hysterically running rampant – puzzle him. He suggests that the behavior may be related to the sickness itself – but is unable to explain why the public displays are observed primarily among the poor. A modern reader concludes that such public displays may be universal, but perhaps are more observed because the poor present a more public face.
Defoe’s focus on class created a tradition that was further developed by other English writers. It is important to remember that Defoe was one of the first English novelists. By asserting that class distinctions were worth writing about in a novel form, he laid the foundation for future writers such as Dickens who explored this distinction in depth. While Defoe maintained a journalist’s tone throughout A Journal of the Plague Year, later writers were able to throw off this detachment to create more three dimensional characters that explore this further.
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