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English: Plagues in Literature

Widespread disease, contagion, epidemic, and pandemic, as represented in literature.

The Plagues in Literature Bibliography

Plague plays a variety of functions in the works listed, appearing sometimes as a principal force, almost as a "character", as in Poe's Masque of the Red Death. In other instances, the illness is a context, or frame, to the work.

This bibliography has been primarily generated by combing secondary articles on the subject.  Some of these articles are listed in the "About" section.

Where a work is owned at Fogler, or elsewhere in URSUS, or in MaineCat, a link is provided to a (single) record.  However, in many cases, multiple copies of the work may be owned, here, or elsewhere. A search in URSUS or in MaineCat will unearth these. Dates for works are the date first written, or published, not neccessarily  the year of publication of the linked item.

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Link to the Bibliography

Dr. Schnabel [The Plague Doctor], Rome 1656

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 1925


Why does Clarissa Dalloway want to buy the flowers herself? In the famous opening sentence of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), the society hostess declares her intention to embark on a simple errand. Her joy cannot be contained: “What a lark! What a plunge!” It is easy to miss the clue, embedded parenthetically a few pages on: “One feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes”. She is delighted to go out, even if only to buy flowers, because she has been ill. Recovered, she is rejoining the living, plunging back into the “swing, tramp and trudge” of the city even as the memory of “influenza” hovers – the tolling of Big Ben recalling the constant ringing of bells for the dead.

- from "Through the Smudged Pane: Pandemic Consciousness in Mrs. Dalloway", Elizabeth Winkler, TLS, May 29, 2020
(review of Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature, Elizabeth Outka, 2019

The Plague in Literature and Myth

The plague is found everywhere in literature. It belongs to the epic with Homer, to tragedy with Oedipus Rex, to history with Thucydides, to the philosophical poem with Lucretius. The plague can serve as background to the short stories of Boccaccio's Decameron;   there are fables about the plague, notably La Fontaine's "Les Animaux malades de la peste";  there are novels, such as Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi and Camus' La Peste. The theme spans the whole range of literary and even nonliterary genres, from pure fantasy to the most positive and scientific accounts. It is older than literature - much older, really, since it is present in myth and ritual in the entire world.

-- Rene Girard, The Plague in Literature and Myth, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 15:5, 833-850

London's Remembrancer, 1665

Albert Camus, The Plague [La Peste], 1947

From a distance, historic upheaval looks like a single event (the “French Revolution,” “the Great War,”). Living through the virus we learn that momentous events are actually experienced as indefinite periods of ennui-laced dislocation.

There was no reason why the epidemic shouldn’t last more than six months; why not a year, or even more? At such moments the collapse of their courage, will-power and endurance was so abrupt that they felt they could never drag themselves out of the pit of despond into which they had fallen.

Anticipating our darkest moments, Albert Camus was pitch perfect. Are we living Camus’s Oran? In at least one way: they made it up as they went along and surely so are we.

-from On the Road: Field Notes from the Wreckage of Tourism (Bill Murray, 3 Quarks Daily, May 25, 2020)

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