“SUCH MOVING ACCENTS”: DE-SCRIBING TRUTH IN DEFOE’S A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR

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.

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