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A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (1722)


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Many consciences were awakened; many hard hearts melted into tears; many a penitent confession was made of crimes long concealed. It would wound the soul of any Christian to have heard the dying groans of many a despairing creature, and none durst come near to comfort them. Many a robbery, many a murder, was then confessed aloud, and nobody surviving to record the accounts of it.

When A Journal of the Plague Year was first published in 1722 as the "Observations and Memorials" of a "citizen" who called himself "H.F.," readers accepted it as the real journal of a survivor of the London plague of 1665. That's not surprising, given the book's attention to detail, including tables of casualties for different geographical areas. One of the book's greatest strengths is its feeling of authenticity. Over time, however, it was revealed that the author was actually Daniel Defoe, who was only five years old during the outbreak, and who therefore could not have written his own first-hand account of the plague. Though it reads like an authentic journal, it is actually a well researched work of historical fiction, probably based on the journal of Defoe's uncle, Henry Foe.

A Journal of the Plague Year is one of those books that is more interesting to me as a literary artifact than as a book in its own right. What I mean is, I can appreciate its importance in the development of fiction, but beyond that it did not mean much to me. It's also the second book I've read in the last twelve months that describes the effects of the plague on a town, the first being Manzoni's The Betrothed, which dealt with the Milan plague of 1630.

Not a bad read, but not something that I plan on rereading again. ( )
  nsenger | Jul 15, 2017 |
With Ebola outbreaks on the news and debates on vaccinations on every blog, it seemed like a perfect time to return to one of the original records of a disease outbreak. I was particularly curious to read this book because it was mentioned multiple times in “On Immunity”. The author of Robinson Crusoe wrote this fictionalized account of a man who lives through the bubonic plague in England in 1665. Defoe was only 5-years-old at that time, but his account is considered one of the most accurate ones of the plague.

Defoe looks at the plague through the eyes of one man. He’s forced to decide if he should stay or go when the outbreak begins. So many people fled, but some didn’t realize they had already been infected. They carried the plague with them to other towns. Some people who were sick would throw themselves into the pits of the dead and wait their death out.

The book is surprisingly interesting for a nonfiction account written centuries ago. Defoe talked about the actually details of how the outbreak was handle. For example, when one person in a family got sick, the rest of the family was kept in their house with a guard posted out front or other times they were all sent to the sick house, where they often became infected even if they weren’t sick before.

Random Tidbits:
The scene from “Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail” where they are yelling out “Bring out your dead!” was a real thing. People went around with carts and actually yelled that out to collect the dead bodies.

The standard of burying people six feet under was also established at this point. It used to be a very arbitrary depth before the plague.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s less about the plague itself than it is about the study of a society in duress. It was fascinating to see the different ways people reacted. Their fight or flight tendencies haven’t changed much over the last 300 years. ( )
1 vote bookworm12 | Jun 8, 2015 |
This book contains the phrase "Bring out your dead". It also has a scene where a man is put alive onto the dead cart, at which he remarks "But I an't dead though, am I". If those aren't reason enough to read it, then I don't know what is.

My understanding is that historians are unable to tell exactly where the line between truth and fiction lies. This edition is lightly modernised, which perhaps slightly spoils the effect of reading an original document but it is very cleverly written, as if by one who doesn't habitually write. He introduces the story of the three brothers several times before he actually tells it. Ultimately, I think the book is a victim of its own success as once the brothers' story is told it becomes repetitive and rather tiresome. ( )
1 vote Lukerik | May 12, 2015 |
Daniel Defoe is a fascinating writer. He can write a marvelous melodrama and then create a novel that reads as if it is non-fiction. This fictional documentation of the great plague of 1665 in England is quite remarkable. Apparently some historians think it is better than actual documentation in its ability to convey the progression and social repercussions of this horrifying black death. He carefully lays out the slow unraveling of the societal fabric. He seems to say that fear and suffering result in chaos and irrational behavior. The desire to survive drives people to behave in ways they would not otherwise even consider or believe themselves capable of. I have to say that the power of this book seems, unfortunately, as relevant now as ever. With an Aids epidemic, Ebola epidemic, and threats of biological warfare in our lives, it is a pretty scary insight into the likely chain of events should some form of massive biological threat present itself. This was not a fun read, but very thought provoking. ( )
  hemlokgang | Mar 13, 2015 |
Okay, this is a fictitious account of what happened in 1665 in London even if it is made to seem factual. What this leaves me feeling, though, is what did Defoe want to achieve with this account? Was it meant to attract the voyeur in the reader, giving details of the disaster, or did he have a deeper purpose? He ascribes a lot of the reason for the plague to God’s judgement on people’s behaviour and he takes the opportunity to put the case for Dissenters on a few occasions but did this writer who published ‘Molls Flanders’ in the same year wanting this to be a significant aspect of the book?

Certainly making himself a grown man living through the plague rather than the five year old that he actually was adds immediacy and credibility as well as disguising the way a lot of research went into its composition. Of course, Burgess tells us in his introduction that fleas spread the disease and human to human contagion was very rare, something that retrospectively puts all the narrator’s assertions that it was spread by human contact into doubt, yet Defoe, it seems, has the last word, at least for now, with recent exhumations now asserting that it was spread by human contact and not by fleas.

Still, this is by the bye. The disjointed and repetitive nature of the book, its battology, made it a tedious read after a while, the only ongoing story being that of the three travellers and their companions but even this is rather distant. Yes, Defoe mentions lots of deep emotions, mainly of distress, but there’s no developed characterisation and I wonder if there’s any difference between the narrator and the author. ( )
1 vote evening | Jun 5, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Daniel Defoeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gnoli, DomenicoIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pendrey, PeterIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Plumb, J. H.Forewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sutherland, James R.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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It was about the beginning of September 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse, that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods, which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus.
But even those wholesome reflections -- which, rightly managed, would have most happily led the people to fall upon their knees, make confession of their sins, and look up to their merciful Savior for pardon, imploring His compassion on them in such a time of their distress, by which we might have been as a second Ninevah -- had quite a contrary extreme in the common people, who, ignorant and stupid in their reflections as they were brutishly wicked and thoughtless before, were now led by their fright to extremes of folly; and, as I have said before that they ran to conjurers and witches, and all sort of deceivers to know what should become of them (who fed their fears, and kept them always alarmed and awake on purpose to delude them and pick their pockets), so they were as mad upon their running after quacks and mountebanks, and every practising old woman for medicines and remedies; storing themselves with such multitudes of pills, potions, and presevatives, as they were called, that they not only spent their money but even poisoned themselves beforehand for fear of the poison of the infection; and prepared their bodies for the plague, instead of preserving them against it.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140430156, Paperback)

The shocking immediacy of Daniel Defoe's description of a plague-racked city makes it one of the most convincing accounts of the Great Plague of 1665 ever written.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:42 -0400)

(see all 9 descriptions)

Defoe's classic reconstruction of the Great Plague of 1665 is the most compelling account of natural disaster in all literature. Narrated by an imaginary 'Citizen who continued all the while in London', A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) scans the streets and alleyways of the stricken capital in its effort to record the appalling suffering of plague victims. At once horrifying and movingly compassionate, it is a nightmare vision of the modern city laid to waste. Louis Landa's Oxford English Novels text and notes are here reissued with an Introduction by David Roberts which sheds fresh light on the relationship of the Journal to Pepys's diary, and a new medical note based on the latest epidemiological research.… (more)

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