State University of New York at Buffalo
Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year has frequently provoked a kind of critical anxiety surrounding the supposedly clear divide between fiction and reality. Most commentators have foreclosed the crisis of classification to which the novel gives voice by definitively asserting, regardless of their larger concern with the text, that it is a work of fiction and can only be correctly appreciated as such. This paper suspends this conclusion in order to contend that the Journal is so troubling precisely because Defoe’s fantastic descriptive ability breaks down before the immensity of its object of concern – the plague. This reading suggests that the narrative gap around which the entire novel circulates reveals that reality itself – the shared, symbolically ordered existence of a community – is structured like a fiction. This exploration is grounded in an analysis of Locke’s influence on Defoe, with particular attention to the former’s own philosophical anxiety concerning the divide between words and ideas in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The argument turns on an investigation of Defoe’s indebtedness to Hobbes’ elaboration of the human subject as fundamentally unreasonable and driven by desire, such that any endeavor to eliminate the necessary distance between ideas and their articulations will inevitably be frustrated by the passions, which are elicited by a traumatic encounter with this distance. The plague here names this trauma, and marks the resistance to signification that both threatens and demands a stable symbolic order. Defoe’s Journal can thus be read as an attempt to bind the inarticulable excess that threatens to dissolve reality itself, and as an intervention into the essential fiction of symbolic coherence without which any community would be impossible.