Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1731) is often categorized under the heading of realism. However, I argue that this does not adequately capture the operations of truth that prevail in this novel. The narrator, H.F., reiterates in numerous ways the proposition that what he needs to describe, to share the experiences of the plague, cannot possibly be described. In this reading, Journal stands as an early literary instance of a challenge to the edicts of realism and not as a proponent of that label. In John Bender’s Imagining the Penitentiary (1987) Journal is read as a realist depiction of the rise of the Penitentiary in Eighteenth century London. This paper shows how this reading miscues some of the most interesting and far-reaching aspects of this novel. It is argued that this form of truth telling can be read as a fiction of ‘de-scription’ (a term borrowed from Blanchot’s lexicon)—writing that inscribes the limit of description within itself. Thus, it can be characterized as a fiction of disaster—an experience which cannot be described but only de-scribed. Moreover, through a close reading of this novel, I propose an alternative paradigm for conceptualizing the changes that were being recorded in Eighteenth-century London. Instead of Bender’s favored paradigm of a penitentiary that is married to the consciousness of an individual prisoner, I argue that the topology of a camp is better suited to assimilate the limit of law, medicine and narration that are reached within the text. I explore these domains in this novel to string together my larger argument that outlines the invisible threshold that a plague infected body creates for truth telling.

KEYWORDS: Biopolitics, Disaster Fiction, De-scription, Realism, John Bender.


A range of eighteenth and nineteenth century schools of thought, often contradicting one another but clubbed together as Enlightenment, pre-figure the seemingly indubitable co-dependence of truth and realism in fiction. This mode of truth telling relies extensively on descriptions that arguably generate a semblance of reality; a host of critical studies have been devoted to outlining the contours of this literary and philosophical assemblage. Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957) is a prominent milestone in coagulating the intractable reliance of truth on realism. He established links between the rise of the reading public in the eighteenth century and that of the “realist” novelists Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding. John Bender’s Imagining the Penitentiary (1987) is another note-worthy study in this domain. Bender argued that the Eighteenth-century realist novel and the narration of the inner life of its subjects—found ubiquitously in these works—can be most efficaciously theorized on the blueprints of the Benthamite penitentiary. Hence, this reading of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1731) is rooted in the realist paradigm, which procures the validity of truth via a detour through descriptions of the inner life of its subjects. In the wake of this discourse, it is difficult to distill a notion of truth-telling that steps beyond the realist syntagm of spatiality, temporality, consciousness and causality.

This paper will argue that this paradigm of truth as realism not only fails to address, but also conceals, another knot between truth and fiction—already present in Defoe—which remained unrecognizable, partly due the conceptual difficulty that it poses, but also owing to the wide-ranging brush strokes of realism. Maurice Blanchot’s inflection to the word “description” in The Writing of the Disaster (1980) offers a conceptual framework to approach this obscured mode of truth telling that articulates itself not through descriptions but by drawing the threshold of truth telling as a human experience. In A Journal of the Plague Year truth-claims do not depend on realist descriptions as a literary strategy, rather it de-scribes reality, which means that it actively draws the limit that the gaze of a realist narrator cannot trespass, but it nonetheless articulates the shape of this boundary. Defoe’s narrator tells his readers that only if he had “such moving accents,” that could replicate the extremity of truth, then he would be able to narrate the events in their entirety; but these accents are not to be found within the language of recollection.

The limit met by narration in Journal extends itself to medicine and law within the frame of this novel—these three domains are not coincidental but together they form a zone of political and ethical indecipherability which parallels contemporary models of a camp. This relay between these three modes of apprehending truth within Defoe’s account aims to assess the soundness of Bender’s argument that the structure of the city began to resemble a penitentiary in response to the plague. Following the strands of my argument, Defoe’s Journal proves to be an early testament to the technology of the camp which took shape gradually in response to the negotiations of truth in extenuating circumstances such as the plague. Hence, the two concerns, i.e., the camp and limit of narrativity, are indistinguishable in this reading, as one fosters the other. The topological structure of a camp imposes a narrative limit on realist descriptions—it “de-scribes” or effaces the script, which announces its own impossibility as a human experience.

The title of Defoe’s Journal provides the first hints of its claim towards facticity. It is useful to begin with its complete title,

A Journal of the Plague Year: being Observations or Memorials, of the most Remarkable Occurrences, as well Publik as Private, which happened in London during the last Great Visitation in 1665. Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made public before.

The form of novel—as a mode of fictional story-telling—is suspended in the very title of the text; it bears the title of a journal, that is said to have been maintained by a citizen of London during the plague. This bears resemblance to Samuel Pepys’ diary that he famously kept during the plague year. However, as it is now evident from historical records, Defoe, born in 1660, could not have been speaking from personal experiences in this ‘journal.’ It is a fictive construct that is narrated by a person, who may or may not have any bearing to a real person who lived during the plague.[1]

In this light, how do we understand the repeated truth-claims that the character-narrator H.F. makes about the utter horror of living through these times? The weight of the truth claim of the form of the journal adds credence to the limit of narrativity that Defoe establishes. On one hand H.F. claims to be telling the complete truth as experienced through his very senses, on the other hand he claims that no matter how much he tries he cannot reproduce the true horror of having lived through those times. This creates a double-bind, which makes the reader believe that the events being recorded here are truly unbelievable and yet factual. This double-bind of facticity and the impossibility of a truthful recollection in the form of a narration establishes a threshold for human comprehensibility of truth. H.F. regrets not being able to reproduce the extent of that horror, he writes,

I wish I could repeat the very Sound of those Groans, and of those Exclamations that I heard from some poor dying Creatures, when in the Height of their Agonies and Distress; and that I could make him that read this hear, as I imagine now hear them, for the Sound seems still to Ring in my Ears. (104)

H.F. steps beyond the limits of description by apologetically conveying to his readers that he cannot possibly reproduce the extremity of the groans that he heard. Having lived through the plague—as asserted in the complete title—the narrator has lived to say precisely the fact that this tale is untellable. Here lies a paradox, which is engineered into all disaster fiction, the telling of that which cannot be told. It is important to note that this pale writing of de-scription does not effortlessly submit itself to its own impossibility; it calls for its own set of literary techniques that are effective in generating an experience of precisely that which cannot be experienced. H.F. adds, “If I could but tell this Part, in such moving Accents as should alarm the very Soul of the Reader, I should rejoice that I recorded those Things, however short and imperfect” (Defoe 104, emphasis added). He is lamenting the loss of the reader’s ability to experience those ‘moving accents.’ The loss of experience is central to the fiction of disaster—what is experienced is characterized by the very fact that it cannot be experienced while retaining the sanctity of the experiencing subject. If realism is rooted in a cogent perspective granted to the experiencing subject, then disaster fiction uproots that very subject whose limit is defined by that which it cannot accommodate as a subject. By the same operation, it calls for a suspension of truth that in other contexts takes its credibility from descriptions of reality. How to then understand this modality of knowledge that spills beyond the territory of verifiability?

 In The Writing of the Disaster (1995), Maurice Blanchot explores this space of knowledge that destabilizes the dichotomy of truth and falsity; truth is no longer something that can be told; hence, it is also not falsifiable. He writes,

Knowledge becomes finer and lighter only at the outer edges, when truth no longer constitutes the principle to which it must finally submit. The nontrue, which is not falsehood, draws knowledge outside of the system, into the space of aimless drifting where key words no longer dominate, where repetition does not serve meaning (but is the ultimate collapse, of the ultimate)—where knowledge passing into un-knowledge, no longer depends upon itself, and neither results nor produces a result, but changes imperceptibly, effacing itself: no longer knowledge, but a likeness thereof. (Blanchot 42-43)

Blanchot is developing a vocabulary for comprehending the writing that effaces itself in this book that comprises unnumbered fragments. In these fragments, The Writing of the Disaster collides with the limit that Defoe creates by claiming that he aspires to reproduce the agony of the groans, but language itself fails him in this pursuit. The inflection that Blanchot introduces to the word ‘description’ is central to this reading. Blanchot writes, “The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience—it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes” (Blanchot 7). The disaster is both included and excluded within this act of writing. It is the telling of that about which nothing can be told—speech in a muted voice, articulating its own impossibility.

The break-down point of experience in Journal is not that the tragedy is of an extreme stature, or the fall of the character is from such a great height that the reader cannot help but sympathize, but the number of people itself caught in the spread of the plague is what makes it incomprehensible. In the opening section, H.F reports the “Encrease of the Bills” in great details from December 27th, 1664 till February 14th, 1665. The bills increased from 16 to 24 in St. Gile’s parish and 17 to 23 in St. Andrew’s parish. However, the last bill marking an increase of 59, H.F. notes, was “really frightful, being a higher Number than had been known to have been buried in one Week, since the last visitation of 1656” (Defoe, 4). The scale of the disaster and the fright is pronounced in numbers and not sentences, which would have been the case in the descriptions of realist fiction that aptly focuses on the rise and fall of individuals and not a body of people.

In his analysis from the chapter titled “The City and the Rise of the Penitentiary: A Journal of the Plague Year,” Bender miscues this peculiar feature of the novel. He characterizes the locked-up houses in Defoe’s London as an old prison in place of which, he argues, H.F. advocated new Benthamite penitentiaries. It would be useful to consider Bender’s larger argument in this book to aptly draw a contrast between Journal and the kind of realism Bender projects upon it. First, he describes the old prisons as liminal spaces, where “‘…the neophytes are neither living nor dead from one aspect, and both living and dead from another. Their condition is one of ambiguity and paradox, a confusion of all customary categories'” he adds, “old prisons neither told nor assigned roles” (26). As opposed to the old prison, Bender introduces the new penitentiaries, which “have regimes, schedules, disciplines; their inmates progress or regress; and they have stories….,” he adds “Much of the history of penology… is properly described as an attempt to order the prison story generically with divergent classifications of plot for each age, sex, and type of convict” (34). The idea at the heart of the argument, Bender explains, is that the form that these new prisons took “in collaboration with the period’s new systems of political and moral consciousness was [the] narrative form of a distinctively novelistic kind that I associate with early realist fiction” (34). To tie up his argument, Bender advocates that “The liminal prison became the penitentiary when, through a conflation of legal and grammatical notions of a ‘sentence,’ randomness gave way to narrative order and ‘sentences‘ came to be served rather than executed” (35, emphasis added). In Bender’s argument, the penitentiary mirrors the literary form of a realist novel, where the ‘order’ that the inmates had to follow inside the prison began to reflect the ‘order’ of ‘sentences’ in fiction—in other words, inside the new prisons, the consciousness (given a new form in the Eighteenth-century novel) was imprisoned, and not just the body.[2]

I contend that this reading of Defoe’s Journal and Eighteenth-century legal and moral practices is stranded by the misleading dichotomy between old prisons and newer Benthamite penitentiaries. From a post-Holocaust twentieth and twenty-first century vantage point, it misrepresents perhaps the most ‘novel’ characteristic of Defoe’s Journal. H.F.’s account of the London plague embodies the technology of a management of human bodies and not consciousnesses as in a reformative penitentiary. This management of human bodies is aided by a legal suspension of law that is required to respond to extenuating circumstances such as the plague. This technology kept updating itself alongside the penitentiary for over two centuries, until it came to be known by its most recent name at Auschwitz.[3] If life inside a penitentiary is written in the form of ‘sentences,’ then one inside a camp is transcribed in the form of numbers, figures, graphs and pie-charts. The mode of representation befitting the reign of camps is topographical—the number of bodies super-imposed on spaces to graphically represent the size of the disaster. Moreover, numbers do not follow the logic of a penitentiary; there are no inner narratives of the people whose lives these numbers represent; they themselves are the story, not of individual persons but of the metaphorical beast called the ‘body of the people’.[4]

Secondly, the enclosures that held the infected bodies during the plague, characterized as the “locked-up houses” in the Journal, themselves mirror the juridical and political outlines of a modern camp. The infected bodies are trapped within their own houses until they perish from those conditions created within the enclosure, leading to the bodies being transported to mass burial grounds by carts after their death. The decision to lock up the house was a sovereign decision that fell upon the Examiners, under the orders of the Magistrate, one of whom was the narrator H.F. Moreover, H.F.’s recommendations to segregate the people preemptively to curb future possibilities of the spread of a plague, which Bender reads as an advocacy for the Benthamite penitentiary, is the quintessential biopolitical tactic which does not resemble the ‘sentences’ of realist fiction but the limit of truth telling as discussed above.[5] All possibilities of narration in this text come at the risk of catching the infection oneself. One cannot tread too close to an infected body if one wishes to keep oneself healthy. This creates an impregnable yet invisible threshold between the infected body inside the locked-up house and the narrator on the outside.

The figure of the watchmen stationed outside the locked-up houses in Journal is revealing in this context. One such watchman, who had heard nothing from inside a locked-up house for two days, suddenly “…heard great crying and screaming in the House, which as he supposed, was occasioned by some of the Family dying just at that Time…” (49). The body of a servant maid was taken away from the house the previous night; however, when the watchman knocked to enquire about the screaming “an angry quick Tone, and yet a kind of crying Voice, or a Voice of one that was crying [answered], What d’ye want, that ye make such knocking? He answered I am the Watchman! How do you do? What is the Matter? The person answered, What is it to you? stop the Dead-Cart.” When the watchman knocked again after stopping the dead-cart, there was no answer from the inside. The next morning the watchmen put up a ladder and peeked inside to see the dead body of a woman, “they resolved to acquaint either the Lord Mayor, or some Magistrate of it, but did not offer to go in at the Window” (Defoe 49-50). The rest of the people living in the house had vacated through other means during the night.

Two significant details surface from this incident. Firstly, the watchman, who is stationed outside a house to guard it and watch over it, cannot enter it. The house marks a territory of no-man’s-land—a space that has been left to its own conditions until it resolves itself. Secondly, the people inside have no lines of communication with the watchman, despite the watchman sounding concerned, the horror of being on the inside cannot be communicated to him—only a ‘cry’ or a ‘crying voice’ is heard on the outside. This marks the breakdown of language on the threshold of a locked-up house. While inmates in a penitentiary need to be observed over a period of time to cause a change in their moral character, a body locked in a camp needs no observation apart from the purposes of medicinal advancement. Hence, Bender’s argument that the locked-up houses structurally parallel the prison is not accurate; moreover, it misses the novelty in the shift in imagination that came with these exchanges between the inside and the outside of an enclosed space. What is seen in these spaces are the germs of something that did not exist before the catastrophe of the plague. These exchanges called for a new set of medical and legal practices—recorded within Defoe’s narrative—which were introduced by the state to manage the tyrannical threshold imposed by the plague.

Medical experimentation and treatment surface as a significant layer in Defoe’s Journal. H.F. is intensely invested in recording the progress that science is making at this time. As a mode of truth-telling, science plays a crucial role at examining data from the bodies of the infected people which are otherwise left to their own rotting mechanisms. While both the story-teller and the medical practitioner aspire to move in closer to these rotting bodies in order to bring back certain edicts of facticity, both observers stop short for fear of contamination. H.F. recalls, “My friend Dr Heath was of Opinion, that it might be known by the smell of their Breath; but then, as he said, who durst smell to that Breath for his Information?” (Defoe 203). Much like the watchman, even the doctor fears contamination. This barrier of contamination challenged medical science to invent newer techniques of testing patients and clinical practices that allowed them to observe infected bodies from a distance; thereby reporting the extent of the spread of the disease but not a narration of their inner life. H.F. conjectures,

I have heard it was the opinion of others that it might be distinguished by the Party’s breathing upon a piece of Glass, where, the Breath condensing, there might living Creatures be seen by a Microscope, of strange, monstrous, and frightful Shapes, such as Dragons, Snakes, Serpents, and Devils, horrible to behold. But this I very much question the Truth of, and we had no Microscopes at that Time, as I remember, to make the Experiment with. (Defoe, 203)

It must be noted that within the frame of Defoe’s novel medicine and narrativity are struggling with the same impediment. A microscope is a means by which a distance can be created between the infected body and the medical practitioner. There are other methods for overcoming this obstacle proposed in the book, such as the breath of the infected person would kill a bird instantly, or the breath of the infected person would produce scum in water if they blew air into it (203). The insistence on the lack of any scientific basis for ascertaining the condition of one’s body is pivotal to a reading of this novel as an early marker of biopolitics. These experiments focused on creation of distance between the subject of disaster and the gaze of the truth-seeker; the gauging of truth took a topological and statistical turn, where the medicinal and legal machinery of the state invested itself in responding to bodies, as carrier of certain marks or “tokens” of the plague, and not to individuals as the perpetrators of a crime.

The locked-up houses that mark the limit for the narrator and the medical practitioner also gave rise to a peculiar legal dilemma about the concept of death. Death marks the threshold for the telling of truth, especially with regards to the truth of a disaster. Only those who survive the disaster live to tell the tale, but the truth, as experienced by those who did not survive, remains beyond the threshold of description. H.F. notes that there were different “kinds of dying” that took place at this time; while some produced “Groans and Crys,” that pierced the “very soul” of the onlookers, in other cases, where the “Swellings could be brought to the Head,” the patients died indifferently without even letting others know that they were taken in by the plague. It was only later, H.F. notes, when the surgeons opened “Parts of their Body” that “Tokens” of the plague were found within them (82). It is important to note that in each of these cases, within Defoe’s narrative, there is no possibility of a narrative of the victim infected by the plague. Life gives way to death, in absolute seclusion or in the presence of others. However, even in those cases all that one can hear are groans and cries. From the point when a body is deemed infected, it is considered dead for all legal purposes.

H.F. is given the task of examining houses to validate whether the inhabitants are infected and if the house needs to be locked-up; this decision made by the Examiner would be legally binding. Once a house has been locked-up, the narrator, the medical practitioner, and the officer of law all lose access to this space. Hence, law is legally suspended at this point and any possibility of truth upheld by the legal machinery in the form of a testimony or otherwise also become impossible. H.F. admits that the whole business of locking up houses was shrouded by an air of “uncertainity” as the Examiners could not themselves go in and out of the houses to properly inspect them, they had to rely on the words of the neighbors and other such sources (167). This uncertainty about the legal status of a house is symptomatic of a deeper uncertainty of the relation between law and death, which cordons off truth as a legally inaccessible zone. This task is made more complicated by the fact that the people trapped inside the ‘contaminated’ houses—infected or not yet infected—are not only trying to escape the infection but also the status of being categorized dead for all means and purposes by the state.

In Homo Sacer (1995) Agamben explores this uncertainty of life and death with respect to law using the paradigm of coma patients. The condition of a coma patient, Agamben argues, creates a no-man’s land between life and death, the issue gets further exacerbated with the development of modern life-support systems and transplant technologies (1995, 160). Agamben states, “…life and death are not properly scientific concepts but rather political concepts, which as such acquire a political meaning precisely through a decision” (164). This zone of indecipherability between life and death in a coma patient and need for a legal ‘decision’ is helpful to understand the role of the Examiner in Defoe’s Journal. The power vested in the Examiner by the Magistrate is notionally the power to make a sovereign decision over life and death—even though the Examiner does not have credible means for deciphering whether the house is indeed infected or not. In this sense, the locked-up houses in Defoe’s Journal offer a more accurate example of the legal dilemma of discerning life from death than the paradigm of a coma patient. The people trapped inside these houses could be healthy, just as a coma patient can be kept alive or even brought back to life with a transplant, but the decision to pronounce death resides entirely with the foot soldiers of the law.

This creates a limit for law’s operations, as it cannot verify the state of the people inside a house without exposing the Examiners to the threat of the plague. Hence, law sought other measures to respond to the challenges brought about by the plague. A heavier reliance on statistics and an imagination of the collective body of the people, as opposed to smaller units such as families or individuals, is one of the ways in which all the three practices—narration, medicine and law—responded to this challenge. Statistics alters the nature of truth-telling, it does not adhere to the parameters set by realism, instead it calls upon a different, more probabilistic notion of truth. Statistics and the imagination of a collective body of people are co-dependent within this narrative. Defoe invokes sublime metaphors to describe the condition of the city at large as one unit:

The Face of London was now indeed strangely alter’d, I mean the whole Mass of Buildings, City, Liberties, Suburbs, Westminster, Southwark and altogether; for as to the particular Part called the City, or within the Walls, that was not yet much infected; but in the whole, the Face of Things, I say, was much alter’d…were it possible to represent those Times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the Reader due Ideas of the Horror that everywhere presented itself, it must make just Impressions upon their minds, and fill them with surprise. London might well be said to be all in tears… (16).

The face of people metamorphosizes into the face of London itself—which appears as if it is in tears. Through this metamorphosis—parallel to how an infected person metamorphosizes into an infected house as discussed above—Defoe speaks of a whole as if it applies to all the parts of the city and every person living in it—an inverted synecdoche.

Another key metaphor, not just in Defoe’s narrative but in much of Seventeenth and Eighteenth century philosophy and fiction as well, is the ‘Body of the People.’ It is through this metaphorical passage that tragedy takes on a new meaning. The scales of truth shift from ‘sentences’ (using Bender’s formulation) and take the form of numbers instead; this shift towards the ‘body of the people’ inaugurates a new field of study, i.e. statistics. Imagining people as a singular ‘Body’ by Defoe and the birth of statistics as a science temporally coincide. William Petty’s Political Arithmetik, a formative text in the study of statistics, was first published posthumously in 1690. Defoe’s narrative is a quilt-work of statistics and numbers where he repeatedly makes suggestions for better statistical grip of the body of the people to forestall disasters such as the plague. H.F. laments, “I often reflected upon the unprovided Condition, that the whole Body of the People were in the first coming of this Calamity upon them…” (121, emphasis added). The lament is not about the death of any individual or a set of people whose stories can be recorded and described in realist fiction; it is the sheer magnitude of the number of deaths or metaphorically, the very ‘body of the people’ that is threatened. The metaphor and the numbers take a life of their own; they contain what the descriptions that came to define realism could not.

Towards the end of the Journal, H.F. announces not just a breakdown of narration but also that of numbers. When the dead bodies outnumber the ability of the magistrates to keep an account, they are just dumped into pits by heaps over heaps. H.F. points out that he could not maintain his list any longer in the extreme month of September as “Men did not die by Tale and by Number, they might put out a Weekly Bill, and call them seven or eight Thousand, or what they pleas’d…” (237). The use of the word ‘Tale’ is significant here; the word tale held two meanings in the eighteenth century—the telling of a story and the account or number of something, especially dead bodies. It is unlikely that the pun invoked in the use of this word to denote dead bodies on the one hand and the telling of a story on the other was lost on Defoe. The tally—in both senses of the word—loses its ground in the face of innumerability. The narrative ploy inbuilt into this statement is one which relies upon drawing a limit to the telling of a tale, to give a sense of the experience that over-reaches its telling—an act of inclusion by exclusion. The tale becomes untellable. While de-scribing the Dantean burial scene, H.F. sighs,

This may serve a little to describe the dreadful Condition of that Day, tho’ it is impossible to say any Thing that is able to give a true idea of it to those who did not see it, other than this; that it was indeed very, very, very dreadful, and such as no tongue can express (60).

Yielding from any possibility of providing the truth of the disaster through descriptions, H.F uses repetition, which, as Blanchot asserted ‘does not serve meaning’—it de-scribes the possibility of communicating that experience. De-scriptive writing uses language to contain language itself; it marks the threshold beyond which language cannot articulate itself and the horror of having witnessed the disaster. It certainly does not adhere to the requirements of realism and reformative penitentiary that Bender invoked to grapple with this text. Such a reading excludes all that from the brackets of truth that cannot be narrated within the edicts of realism and categorizes them as unreal or fantastical—making it increasingly difficult to contain or even understand experiences that spill beyond these closed confines of descriptive truth.

Bender insists that Defoe articulates the conditions that gave rise to the penitentiary. The liminal spaces, such as the locked-up houses, according to Bender, are the old unmanageable face of authority as opposed to which Defoe advocates for a ‘reformative confinement’, which can be viewed as “a shift from the emblematic display of power within bounded walls” towards  “increasingly removed, projected and displaced…ideologically reified forms such as novel and the penitentiary” (83). This miscues the fact that the projected space commissioned by H.F. for the infected bodies is not a penitentiary where a novelistic ‘inner life’ of prisoners could be reformed. It is much closer to the structure and purpose of a camp where the infected bodies are kept simply to safeguard the rest of the city from a contagion. Bender’s argument misconstrues the limit of verifiability of truth at the threshold of a house that is marked as infected and a body that is proclaimed dead by a sovereign decision.

In my reading of Defoe’s Journal, the dichotomy of truth and falsity gives way to a form of knowledge that expresses itself by telling its readers that what they must believe to be true cannot be described within language. The nature of truth in these spaces can only be apprehended once the outer covering of realism, and its reliance on descriptions to construct truth claims is unpeeled. Realism, as an assemblage of literary principles, fails to encapsulate the advancements that medicine and law made in the face of these points of crisis. These bodies of knowledge created a distance from the subject of disaster and initiated newer means of control by legally suspending law to take decisions on life and death for a whole body of people (Foucault, 2003, 245). The birth of statistics and the imagination of a single body of the people surfaced as important tools for apprehending reality beyond description. The limit of truth and verifiability met by narration, medicine, and law alike cannot be arbitrarily explained as remnants of a past that did not know how to manage people according to the newer disciplinary forms of state control. Such linear progression of thought reinstates the fallacious reliance of realism on descriptions for apprehending truth. Theorizing the structure of locked-up houses in Seventeenth-century London from a post-twentieth century perspective makes it imperative to underline a zone of knowledge that spills over the closed confines of description. In those ‘finer and lighter’ outer layers of knowledge descriptions falter and the novelist invents other techniques for apprehending truth. This argument condenses into a pertinent question, i.e., is our understanding of truth—shaped according to the edicts of realism—suitable to the challenges posed by these dark spaces of illegal legality generated by the biopolitical technologies employed unquestionably by an ever-widening circle of states? In Defoe the first traces of this question can be seen fermenting. Eighteenth century fiction needs to be read against a different backdrop from the domineering canvas of realism, so that traces of the finer imprints of the muted voice of disaster can be located more accurately within the corpus of the modern novel.

Rachit Anand
The University of Delhi

1. Defoe had an uncle called Henry Foe, whose initials match with the narrator of the Journal: H.F. However, there is no proof that Henry Foe stayed in London during the plague (Roberts 1998, x).

2. Traces of Foucault’s early work titled Discipline and Punish (1975) can be clearly seen in Bender’s arguments here; however, these strands are at best peripheral to the progression of this paper.

3. For an in-depth philosophical analysis of the legal suspension of law see Agamben’s “Force of Law” in State of Exception pp. 32-40.

4. Another interesting Eighteenth-century example of this metaphorical transfer is to be found in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), where Gulliver’s gigantic body poses a biopolitical threat to the entire country of Lilliput, just as the “body of the people” threaten the state in Defoe’s Journal (Swift 1961, 10). I will return to this problem with reference to the use of statistics.

5. See Bender, 1987, pp.78-79; Defoe, 1998, pp. 198. In H.F.’s voice, Defoe is arguing in favor of “…separating the people into smaller Bodies, and removing them in Time farther from one another…” (198). Bender interprets this as an endorsement for “solitary confinements,” which “would protect society and increase the survival rate of the infected” (79). This is evidently a misreading of the kind of enclosures that H.F. is suggesting, they do not resemble a modern penitentiary, where the solitary life can cause changes in the consciousness of the person. These confinements can be best understood through a host of examples of ethnic seclusion such as the Apartheid in South Africa or the camps for Jews and other ethnic groups in Germany.


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—. State of Exception. Translated by Kevin Attell, The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

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Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of the Disaster. Translated by Ann Smock. University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.

Daniel, Defoe. A Journal of the Plague Year. 1722. Edited by Louis Landa, Oxford UP, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Translated by David Macey, Penguin Books, 2003.  

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