Defoe wrote fast, reluctant to make revisions, in a plain English stripped of classical allusions, dosed with a strong draft of the Bible–a language brisk, direct, and powerful, as every reader will discover. Backed by careful research, his unfussy prose triumphantly carries off the mild literary fraud of A Journal, which at one level is the most striking historical document to come out of the plague. But it is really a novel, reveling in Defoe’s infallible ear for the cadences of real speech, and his revolutionary desire and ability to set them down.
The narrator’s own voice is a masterpiece of understated realism, adapting its very structure to reflect uncertainty, shock, and the faltering linkages of memory. Bills of mortality, baldly punctuating the text, tell their story … a woman’s shriek of “Oh! Death, Death, Death!” From the woeful cries of a neighborhood prophet, from the voice of an honest waterman or an old soldier, from the report of an apprentice collecting his master’s money from a victim of the plague, Defoe has distilled the clamor of terror. …
London has a face–“strangely alter’d.” … After Cromwell’s death, [it was] functioning as a city should: people had come there to earn a living, after all. The plague puts everything into reverse: the Thames is thick with ships–but not in trade, merely floating prisons, where people seek to escape the contagion. Commerce is still; grass grows in the busiest streets; money is dunked in a bucket of vinegar; friendships are interrupted; whatever makes city life profitable or pleasurable is now life-threatening. When the primal currents of commerce and affection have become conduits for disease, when sickening families are shut up in their houses, when the slightest contact is a source of dread, everyone is returned to the profound isolation–of despair, fear, death—that Defoe suspected to be our natural inheritance.
Defoe knew … the uses of adversity. The plague drives some to madness, some to wickedness; but the multitude make sacrifices for their families, struggle to survive, and take steps to preserve themselves and their loved ones when they can. … The city is a work of man, a maze of human connections. The court may escape, thankless, to Oxford, the wealthy pour down the Whitechapel Road to East Anglia and safety; but the real city people, to whom London is a universe, must dodge the pestilence that stalks them “like an armed Man.” They have lived in these streets, and now they die among them, but in the streets they have picked up, too, a kind of ineradicable toughness.
— Jason Goodwin, Introduction, A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe (Modern Library, 2001)
— posted by Roger W. Smith