Credibility in Defoe’s Journal

Defoe’s Journal made me think again about sources of reliable information. As the plague progresses, at points gaining strength and at points tapering off, Defoe relies on word of mouth, speculation (both his own and that of the “street”) and official death tolls to inform the reader of the state of catastrophe. That a whole book is kept afloat on information that is this baseless is incredible. We are repeatedly told that the statistics of  deaths were often manipulated to extreme extents, causing them to lose any credibility.

At the end of the day, who is trustworthy in the world of Defoe’s Journal? Perhaps only one’s own self, one’s subjective understanding of the world’s (in the context of the Journal, God’s) machinations. And those views of the narrator clearly evolve over the course of the plague.

The magical/spiritual experiences chronicled in the book really emphasized the apocalyptic atmosphere of Journal.  In it, the lack of reliable information and overabundance of rumor fosters a surreal atmosphere in which anything seems possible, even believable. Every other person is apparently communing with God and having visions! If no one knows what’s really happening, who is susceptible to the plague, who is already sick and who is still waiting, then perhaps anything really is possible. This certainly detracts even further from the credibility of the “street”. I really loved how the most reliable person when it comes to knowing who is sick before the symptoms become completely obvious is a man with a leg wound. But when angels are flying in the streets while people are shut inside under guard, at that point it is even conceivable that limbs inherit ultimate authority.

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