Pandemic fear and literature: observations from Jack London's The Scarlet Plague

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Date: Oct. 2014
From: Emerging Infectious Diseases(Vol. 20, Issue 10)
Publisher: U.S. National Center for Infectious Diseases
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,663 words
Lexile Measure: 1490L

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The Scarlet Plague, originally published by Jack London in 1912, was one of the first examples of a postapocalyptic fiction novel in modern literature (1). Set in a ravaged and wild America, the story takes place in 2073, sixty years after the spread of the Red Death, an uncontrollable epidemic that depopulated and nearly destroyed the world in 2013. One of the few survivors, James Howard Smith, alias "Granser," tells his incredulous and near-savage grandsons how the pandemic spread in the world and about the reactions of the people to contagion and death. Even though it was published more than a century ago, The Scarlet Plague feels contemporary because it allows modern readers to reflect on the worldwide fear of pandemics, a fear that remains very much alive.

By exploring the motif of the plague, a consistent and well-spread topos (i.e., theme) in literature (2-4), London's novel is part of a long literary tradition, inviting the reader to reflect on the ancestral fear of humans toward infectious diseases. In the ancient world, plague and pestilence were rather frequent calamities, and ordinary people were likely to have witnessed or heard vivid and scary reports about their terrible ravages (5). When plague spread, no medicine could help, and no one could stop it from striking; the only way to escape was to avoid contact with infected persons and contaminated objects (6). The immense fright was also fueled by a belief in the supernatural origin of pandemics, which were often believed to be provoked by offenses against divinities. In the Bible (e.g., Exodus 9:14, Numbers 11:33, 1 Samuel 4:8, Psalms 89:23, Isaiah 9:13), the plague was viewed as one of God's punishments for sins, so the frightening description of its spread was interpreted as a warning to the Israelites to behave morally. This causal relationship between plague and sin is seen also in Greek literary texts, such as Homer's Iliad and Sophocles' Oedipus the King (429 BCE).

In contrast, the Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460-395 BCE), in his History of the Peloponnesian War, and the Latin poet Lucretius (c. 99-55 BCE), in his De Rerum Natura, refuted a supernatural origin of the disease and focused their descriptions on the uncontrolled fear of contagion among the public. According to these authors, plague did not discriminate between the good and the evil but brought about the loss of all social conventions and a rise in selfishness and avarice.

Later medieval writings, such as The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), emphasized human behavior: the fear of contagion increased vices such as avarice, greed, and corruption, which paradoxically led to infection and thus to both moral and physical death (7,8). Human reactions to the plague are also the central themes of historical titles such as A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (1659-1731), a long, detailed narrative of events, anecdotes, and statistics regarding the Great Plague of London of 1665. In a similar manner, The Betrothed and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A389508109