Written in 1722, this is an account of the epidemic of bubonic plague that ravaged England in 1665 and 1666, and is generally known as the Great Plague of London. One of the last major outbreaks of the disease in Europe, it led to the death of about 100,000 people in just 18 months.
Although Defoe wrote this 60 years after the fact and told the story through the eyes of a fictional character, this may as well be a factual report of the events. The, at least at first, slow spread of the disease is illustrated with the help of tables that show the increase in the number of deaths in different parishes from one week to the next. The attempts to curb the outbreak, like the shutting up of houses, are described in detail, and the provisions that were issued by the authorities are quoted word for word. Defoe manages to look at the situation from almost every angle, be it social or economic, religious or scientific, psychological or political.
He also tries to understand and explain isolated phenomena like a few of the sick trying to infect the healthy intentionally, or some people attempting to escape their mandated quarantine at any cost. In general, and to Defoe’s credit, he manages to never judge people for their sometimes irrational or harmful behaviour because he acknowledges the exceptional circumstances they were trying to survive in. This is one of the aspects that make the book humane, despite all the technicalities and numbers that are frequently in the focus. Another is that it is interspersed with anecdotes, for instance, one about the problems a group of people face as they escape London to the countryside. Some of the descriptions paint a vivid and haunting picture, for example, the dead-carts being driven through the streets or the horror of the burial pits. Why was there never a shortage of men volunteering to collect the dead? Even such questions are answered.
What makes this a great book is the fact that it is still relevant, even 300 years later. In light of the current crisis, the parallels are easy to see, from the political difficulties to the economic troubles, from the societal and psychological impact to the curtailing of personal freedom. If we use this account to look into our own future, comfort and relief will arrive at the very end, when the disease finally loses its power. The return to normalcy, however, will take a long time, and the enormous loss of life will cast a dark shadow over the survivors’ elation.