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  • Writing Plague: Transforming Narrative, Witnessing, and History

    Jennifer Cooke

    Plague left Western Europe in 1720, never to return again in epidemic proportions, yet its legacy has survived to be reworked and re-imagined in fiction. The intersections of two plague texts, Daniel Defoes A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) and Albert Camus The Plague (1947), reveal a series of shared symptoms in the style and structure of plague writing; this in turn suggests a route for formulating how fiction can be in a unique position to address the trauma of enormous death counts and fear of infection resulting from epidemic outbreaks or other historical events of mass destruction and imperilment of human life. Defoes Journal is a fictional account of an historical occurrence, claiming, as it does, to be an eyewitness report of the happenings in London during 1665, the year of Englands last epidemic plague outbreak. The narrator, identifying himself only as H.F., describes his employment as saddler and, while his brother flees the infested capital, he, for a mixture of personal, business and religious reasons, decides to stay.1 The account is purportedly the result of his Memorandums, in which he had committed to paper his observations and opinions of London throughout the plague.2 Camus The Plague, in contrast, is told through the eyes of doctor Bernard Rieux during a fictional plague epidemic that Camus sets in the troubled decade of the 1940s, in the French African colony of Oran.3 This apparently greater remove from an historical plague outbreak, however, does not make the novels relationship to issues of witnessing any the less significant. Buboes are what make plague famous: the enlarged lymph glands, in those most intimate and sensuous of areas, the neck, the armpit, and the groin, are what distinguish the disease so gruesomely. Buboes force the victim into crooked, misshapen stances to relieve the pressure and lessen the pain: the legs are splayed, the arms uplifted, the head turned away to one side. Protruding unmistakably, they declare the disease of the sufferer to be written on the body, there for all to read. To look at and touch, the bubo is a hard knot which can vary in size from a nut to an orange, sometimes blackening, sometimes breaking and suppurating noxious pus. Buboes cannot be removed; they are an inflamed part of the body, but they can sometimes be lacerated, a common practice in 1665 because a broken bubo was thought to betoken a possible recovery. Here is Defoes description of the suffering caused by these diseased growths: the swellings which were generally in the Neck, or Groin, when they grew hard, and would not break, grew

    so painful, that it was equal to the most exquisite Torture; and some not able to bear the Torment, threw themselves out at Windows, or shot themselves, or otherwise made themselves away, and I saw several dismal Objects of that Kind: Others unable to contain themselves, vented their Pain by incessant Roarings, and such loud and lamentable Cries4

    Exquisite: exact, precise, perfect at hitting the mark; pain, just as food, can have a certain delicacy and purity. The descriptions provided by H.F. have a noisy physicality which echoes through the excerpt above. Raymond Stephenson argues that portrayals such as this are employed by Defoe as part of a consciously developed literary technique for specifically stimulating the visual and aural imagination of his eighteenth-century readers rather than appealing to their intellect.5 Indeed, the London of H.F. resounds to screeching and crying,6 the shriecks of Women and Children,7 grievous Cries and Lamentations,8 and People raving and distracted9 on almost every page. This cacophony, Stephenson believes, coupled with the continual presentation of grotesque images is intended to create a picture of physical mutilation and corruption which will horrify and disgust the reader with its references to partially decayed human flesh, pain, agony, and running sores.10 Episode by grisly, clamorous episode, Defoe builds a London in which the sounds, the fetor and the symptoms of disease rise tangibly through his writing. Bubonic plague is not just characterised by buboes alone: the bodys attempt to flush out the bacteria which is gathering in the lymph glands naturally results in a high running fever. This medical fact is incorporated by both Defoe and Camus, the former referring often to the Rage of the Distemper11 which afflicted the London sufferers and the latter making the fight of two closely-followed deaths, those of Othons son and Jean Tarrou, centre upon their struggle against a rising temperature as opposed to the pain and disfigurement caused by the buboes themselves. These images, as Stephenson rightly says, are designed to horrify the reader. Of further note is how within both texts, if in differing ways, the very writing is infected by the symptoms of plague that it describes: the fever of Defoes characters, for instance, is apparent in the agitation and restlessness of the prose. In the following episode recounted by H.F., a typically nameless man has his whole story given in one long and breathless sentence, the high running fever literalised in his delirious, repetitive running amok and the rising tide-waters of the river Thames:

  • Writing Plague: Transforming Narrative, Witnessing and History 2 ___________________________________________________________________________________ I heard of one infected Creature, who running out of his Bed in his Shirt, in the anguish and agony of

    his Swellings, of which he had three upon him, got his Shoes on and went to put on his Coat, but the Nurse resisting and snatching the Coat from him, he threw her down, run over her, run down Stairs and into the Street directly to the Thames in his Shirt, the Nurse running after him, and calling to the Watch to stop him; but the Watchmen frightened at the Man, and afraid to touch him, let him go on; upon which he ran down to the Still-yard Stairs, threw away his Shirt, and plungd into the Thames, and, being a good swimmer, swam quite over the River; and the Tide being coming in, as they call it, that is running West-ward, he reached the Land not till he came about Falcon Stairs, where landing, and finding no People there, it being in the Night, he ran about the Streets there, Naked as he was, for a good while, when it being by that time High-water, he takes the River again, and swam back to the Still-yard, landed, ran up the Streets again to his own House, knocking at the Door, went up the Stairs, and into his Bed again; and that this terrible Experiment curd him of the Plague, that is to say, that the violent Motions of his Arms and Legs stretchd the Parts where the Swellings he had upon him were, that is to say under his Arms and his Groin, and caused them to ripen and break; and that the cold of the Water abated the Fever in his Blood.12

    This story-in-a-sentence is recounted by Defoe not because he believes in the curative function of this extravagant Adventure, since he admits I do not think [it] very possible, but to confirm the many desperate Things which the distressd People falling into, Deliriumswere frequently run upon.13 The forcibly quickened breathing which the plethora of commas demands, the garrulous and excessive explanatory asides, the repetition of run, ran and running, and the extreme overall length of the sentence all reinforce a feeling of incoherence, of the frantic heightening fever and panic induced by plague symptoms. The writing rises with the fever it describes. Rising, in fact, characterises many plague symptoms and events: blistering buboes rise upon the smooth surface of the skin; temperatures and death tolls rise; the miasmas that many physicians in Defoes day believed were carrying plague arose from stagnant marshes and rotting rubbish heaps. The feelings of pain can be diverse, but the bodys reactions to it and the language used to represent it can sometimes partake of the repetitive and the mundane: universally, fever burns, exhausts, causes restlessness and thirst. This does not have to be limiting, however, since the lexicon of suffering and illness is at least general and shared. Thus, in Camus description of the final hours of Othons son, whose childish frame has been the disappointing testing-ground for a newly developed vaccine, the reactions of his little body are familiar, if exacerbated due to the nature of the disease and the approach of death:

    When the burning tide struck him again for the third time and raised him up a little, the child, bent double and throwing back his blanket, fled to the end of the bed, wildly shaking his head from side to side, in terror of the flame that was burning him. Large tears rose beneath his swollen eyelids and began to flow down his pallid face; when the crisis was over, exhausted, tensing his bony legs and his arms from which in forty-eight hours the flesh had dropped away, the child assumed the grotesque pose of a crucified man in the ravaged bed.14

    The fever is a tide that raises the body; afterwards the child assumes a Christ-like pose which intimates, falsely in this instance, that he may possibly rise again, saved, while at the same time underscoring his role as the sacrificial victim of medical sciences failure. The drawn-out death of this child, watched closely by nearly all the major characters in The Plague, plays a symptomatically central role in the novel: the fever that breaks his small body, also emotionally breaks Rieux, who loses his usual medical composure, and shatters the hopes of another doctor, Castel, whose vaccine has only prolonged the suffering. The moment marks a breaking point too for the stern Jesuit priest Father Paneloux as he reaches a personal and religious crisis which prompts Rieux to comment: from the day when he had to watch for