Journal of the Plague Year and First Person Perspective
Meagan Kirchoff Dr. McNutt 10/14/11 Patterns of Literature First Person Perspective in Fiction; An Analysis of A Journal Of The Plague Year by Daniel Defoe Characterization and point of view are two very important tools that authors use in writing fiction. They both interoperate with one another to advance the plot and contribute significantly to the meaning. An author’s choice of point of view can reveal the purpose, strategy or intentions that he or she aimed for as well. One such author that wrote his fiction with evident strategy is Daniel Defoe in his work A Journal Of The Plague Year.
This story is about a man recording the events and observations of the plague “visitation,” as the narrator calls it, to London during the year 1665. Although a work of fiction, Daniel Defoe presents this text as an accurate representation of London during this time period when the plague infected hundreds of its residents, through the eyes of his character. It is not however the events or historical accuracy that makes the story a credible and powerful text but rather the narrator himself.
Daniel Defoe strategically utilizes first person perspective as well as creates a unique character to narrate the story. Defoe’s choice of first person perspective is not only strategic, but also necessary because we wouldn’t have as strong a connection with the narrator or see a full scope of how the plague affected a city as large as London. Before diving into the narrator of the story, one must first look at the point of view and how it shows the author’s strategy.
First person point of view, unlike the other perspectives, provides an insider’s look into the mind of the main character or protagonist. Whereas third person reveals an omniscient presence that is looking down on everything and everyone, it is only first person point of view that allows the reader to really understand the motives, desires and thoughts of the main character. Since this journal is meant to be a personal narrative, no other point of view would be as effective.
This alone doesn’t make the choice to use first person strategic though. There are times where it is wiser to use third person as well. In the case of Defoe’s character however, the personalization is what makes the story distinctive and discernable from articles, newspapers and textbooks that show the time period and events that took place in the fictional journal. Because we can relate to the narrator, it is easier for us to like the story. This is beneficial to Daniel Defoe because the readers will be drawn in quicker.
Also, the first person narration makes the story less of an historical account meant to purely inform the masses, and more of a novel that explores the social dynamics and political framework of a city that was indeed plagued with a deadly infection during the late 17th century. More importantly though, it is due to first person point of view that we are introduced to the central figure of the story, whom without would not make this fictional journal as compelling. First and foremost, as we begin to read the text, given the fact that the story is written in first person point of view, we have to evaluate the reliability of the narrator.
While it may be easier to relate to him, that doesn’t necessarily assure that the narrator can be a trusted character. Factors such as biases, judgments, behaviors and personality in general contribute to the likeability and credibility of the protagonist. If the character has a very skewed way of thinking and viewing the world, or is too unstable that nothing he or she says is grounded in reality, we might find it more difficult to understand and agree with the narrator.
With Daniel Defoe’s journal, the narrator is questionable yet intriguing from the start. What is really important to point out, is the fact that the narrator didn’t identify himself at all to his readers. Why would Defoe write a journal, fiction or nonfiction in first person point of view and not reveal the name of his character? Without a name, or established identity, we as the readers, are left disoriented. If the point of a personal journal is so the readers can get inside the narrator, the anonymity seems to have the exact opposite results intended.
In fact, rather than describing himself at all in the beginning, the narrator starts his journal as if he is writing a report by stating “It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbors heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland…whither, they say, it was brought, some said Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought by their Turkey fleet” (Defoe 1). Nothing in his opening remarks does the narrator attempt to form a relationship with his readers.
We know for a fact that he does want others to read his journal when he later on explains “I have set this particular down so fully, because I know not but it may be of moment to those who come after me…therefore I desire this account may pass with them for a direction to themselves…seeing it may not be of one farthing value to them to note what became of me” (Defoe 2). While it’s clear that the narrator cares enough about his journal that he wants other people to find use of it, he also is displaying a rather detached manner about a serious ordeal, being the plague returning.
However, further on, the narrator discloses information that explains his attitude. Finally, at the bottom of the second page, the narrator reveals not only that he has no family but his servants but also that he only has his business to his name. The narrator can afford to be detached and not worry about his fate because he has nothing but his job to live for. Instead of fleeing and worried about becoming sick, the narrator stays in London but stays mobile by walking around and observing his infected city.
It is because he keeps moving around, that the narrator sees for himself just how devastating and destructive a path that the plague left behind in its wake. He remarks that “London might well be said to be in all tears; the mourners did not go about in the streets indeed, for nobody put on black or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearest friends…tears and lamentation were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for toward the latter end men’s hearts were hardened” (Defoe 3).
While these are merely the observations of one man who is gathering his insights based almost completely on what he sees and speculates, the narrator remains a reliable reporter. He may be aloof regarding his own wellbeing but we can infer based on these observations that the narrator is not oblivious to how great the despair of those who lost friends and family to the plague is. The narrator is perfect for his role as a reporter because he can move about the city, see what has become of his city, write it down in his journal and in the end not care at all if he lives or dies.
He appears to be using his mental removal of the people and his surroundings as a self defense mechanism but it works because he can record his thoughts and observations without losing his sanity and composure. He even has the presence of mind to look down on fellow human beings who are illustrated in the conclusion to the journal: “this poor naked creature cried, ‘Oh, the great and dreadful God! ’ and said no more, but repeated those words continually…” (Defoe 6).
The narrator is now not just separating himself from everyone else; he is placing himself above those who are wrought with fear and depression. It is clear from creating such a dynamic character and making said character the narrator that Daniel Defoe is a strategic and successful author. He not only wrote a historically accurate piece of fiction but he also succeeded in writing a story that captured the turmoil and struggle of a city ravaged by a deadly epidemic through the eyes of an unexpectedly aloof character.
Whereas third person point of view would only give us a glimpse into a traumatic time period, the first person perspective allows us to engage with the text and become a part of the story in spite of not actually being there ourselves. Defoe’s narrator made it even easier to slip inside his body because he remained a fairly neutral observer who held no ties to anyone or anything. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal Of The Plague Year, serves to be an excellent example of how powerful first person point of view can be in fiction.