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.

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