The Secret History- Not so Secret or Intriguing as One Would Hope

October 12th, 2011

This epistolary novel is actually the first novel read thus far that was dissatisfying. Having the word “Secret” in the title gave hope that there would be some really interesting revelations exposed throughout this work. However, after completing the novel, it seemed to have started nowhere and ended at the same place even though the narrator traveled from place to place; I wish the story would have followed. The reason for this dissatisfaction is simple but not unwarranted: There were absolutely no revelations of secrets. The promised “secret history” of Haiti could have come from any historical text. When one compares Mary to H.F from The Journal of the Plague Year, Mary seems cold, distant, and somewhat unconcerned with the political movements taking place at this time. This is doubly odd considering that Sansay actually lived through these “horrific” experiences and saw their consequences first hand. H.F is a fictionalized character and Defoe did not personally experience the effects of the plague. Why is this? One reason may be that Sansay needed to distance herself from the memories of the dreadful events she experienced and Defoe was able to fully immerse himself into an imaginary world and speculate on how he thinks he would have felt living through the plague. Sansay writes: “It is not often in the tranquility of domestic life that the poet or historian seek their subjects! Of this I am certain, that in the calm that now surrounds us it will be difficult for me to find one for my unpoetical pen” (Sansay 93). For Sansay and Mary there is not much of a difference between a poet and historian. The two, in this case, are not mutually exclusive. Having an “unpoetical pen” implies that there is a lack of emotion in Mary’s letters which allows her to report factually without much room for errors behind her facts. However, Mary does not seem so focused on factually reporting on the uprising in Haiti but reporting on those that surround her. This is also the crux of the situation- Mary may not have any “poetical” inclinations about the revolution but cannot help but have emotions and “poetical” feelings for the friends that are affected by the trying times. It also could be that living through any political movement, unless one is an active member of it, diverts much of their attention to the aspects of everyday life that he or she is directly connected to. In other words, Sansay reports on the way those around her lived their everyday life during the time of this revolution. This then leads to a secondary issue held with this text. One would expect to read this novel through the lens of postcolonialisim yet, as one reads further on, it seems as though this text should be read through the lens of feminism. Mary’s letters tend to report on the horrible experiences women, of each race, have to experience. This is blatantly obvious because of her constant coverage on her sister Clara’s personal life. The secret history seems to be women’s lives in general. Many of the names of women are dashed out and the reader is unaware of the narrator’s name until letter XXVIII. Clara herself is not given her own voice until this point either. Also, the fact that Mary comments on the “private” life of these women implies that there is a secret to their public persona that only she knows the truth about. The public vs. private theme expressed in this novel are the most interesting. The women that allowed themselves to be public figures (like Clara, Clarissa, and Madame le Clerc) are openly addressed and “called out” on their lives and their mistakes. It is also interesting to note that these public women suffer the most- many of which actually lose their lives. The “dashed out” women are the most private and Mary keeps their anonymity. It may also imply that their names are not even worth mentioning because they lead such good, “moral” lives.

In the end, the novel was not completely dissatisfying because of the novel itself but because it was somewhat unclear which way to approach reading this work.

Curiosiy Killed the Cat (or at least thousands of people in London in 1665)

October 5th, 2011

Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year reads like a mix of the movies Zombieland, The Book of Eli, and The Happening. The reader is exposed to characters that have oozing boils and tumors (much like zombies), that blame/praise God for their “Providence” (like saving the Bible in The Book of Eli), while being struck dead by an unseen enemy (as in The Happening). To say this “Journal” is apocalyptic would be the understatement of the century. However, what is even more telling in Defoe’s novel is the fact that it seems that gossip, or at least the need to talk, is what leads to the spread of disease. The speaker/writer of this “Journal”, H.F, remains unscathed throughout this plague but is not above the basic human need to gossip and speculate- after all, isn’t this journal one big piece of speculation?

Initially it seems as though H.F wants the reader to believe that the plague, much like gossip, is a “poor man’s” disease. H.F., however, is a businessman and seems to be a member of the upper/upper middle class. H.F. is also the writer of this journal which is completely based on gossip- right down to the “bills of death” he references to “prove” his facts. It seems as though H.F builds a binary and then chooses to break it. On one hand the poverty stricken people are solely to blame for the spread of this horrendous plague yet the fact that H.F bases his “facts” on the “word of mouth” breaks that thought. Then, as if to reduce the effect of H. F.’s gossip, Defoe chooses to use what I’ve come to call “distancing language” in order to remove H.F a little further from the gossip that fuels him. Defoe chooses to use many prepositional phrases throughout this novel that seems to distance the speaker (H.F.) from the gossip. H.F becomes a mere conduit for the gossip to pass through. Defoe writes consistently that: “It was thought” (63), “It was reported by way of Scandal” (55), and “it was reported” (131) in order further remove or distance H.F from these facts in case they are wrong. These factual reports are usually followed by H.F’s personal opinions on the facts. The reader is expected to believe H.F. over the “facts” H.F himself- which places the reader in a bit of a conundrum. If the facts that H.F reports are false, can anything he says be true? Is there really a difference between what he reports and what he sees? I think this can be answered by referring to the merchants that H.F speaks of. If one is to believe that H.F is safely locked up away from the plague in his house, how can he know, for sure, what the merchants in Turkey, Italy, and Spain are doing (or not doing) for London?

The reader sees just how susceptible H.F is in his need to converse during the “scene” in which he crosses paths with the waterman. H.F’s “Curiosity” literally moves him out of his house for a walk where he observes the goings on of his town. When he meets this “honest” and God fearing waterman , he decides to actually go near him and go aboard his boat. It seems as though through a few moments of verbal affirmation that H.F’s need for human companionship and the desire to talk overpowers the need to preserve one’s life. The reader almost expects the waterman to let H.F abroad but the reader does not expect for H.F to actually go through with it. This is especially true because up until this point in the novel H.F. makes those that converse with others sound like complete idiots for doing so or malicious “devils” that openly choose to spread the disease for his/her own specific reasons.

It seems as though aside from the physical human need for communication there is a very big emphasis for communication to prove and disprove the facts of the plague itself. The poor are placed in positions to account for others deaths and those infected are told they must account for themselves to report any initial sicknesses they endure. However, the consequences of these forms of accountability are severe. The poor that drive the “death cart” do not really count the amount of bodies they “pick up”. The watchmen of diseased houses sleep or get drunk on the job and physically “lose” those they are supposed to watch. The infected men and women do not always know that they are infected and cannot testify to the fact that they are sick because they do not believe themselves to be so. There is also a chance with those infected that the risk of honesty is too high and would prefer to go about as if nothing at all is wrong with them.

It is also interesting to note that “Curiosity” is constantly blamed for the desire to speak to others. Being “shut up” in houses for days on end seems to fuel the fire (pardon the pun) that makes people go into the streets and help to spread the disease. H.F himself blames “Curiosity” for the times in which he somewhat ignorantly left his house and conversed with others. It is not hard to make the connection that “Curiosity” sparks the need for gossip which then leads to the spread of disease- or possibly rumors and scandal. It seems as though Defoe is trying to say that ones Curiosity can “trump” ones desire for self-preservation. If “curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back”, those in London during the plague were killed (obviously not brought back) but satisfied in a moment of human connection.