We may not like who we are about to become

Crisis chronicles: The great plague literature shows that pandemics can kill compassion too.

What do the classics teach us? As we enter the dark tunnel of the 2020 pandemic, we will face hard questions. Take comfort that some of our greatest writers have struggled with them before.

La Peste by Albert Camus. The Nobel Prize-winning French novelist set one of his most famous books (called The Plague in English) in the Algerian city of Oran. It was published in 1947, three years after cholera hit the city but imagines the outbreak on a much larger scale. The characters include doctors, tourists and residents trying to cope in an atmosphere of panic.

Blindness by José Saramago. The Portuguese author – another Nobel Prize winner – set his 1995 novel in an unnamed city where almost everyone suddenly loses their sight. A doctor and his wife gather around them a small group of people who help each other survive in anarchic conditions, until the plague vanishes as quickly as it arrived.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Pepys was a 17th-century naval administrator whose diary is the most famous one in the English language. As a senior government official, he had access to key figures of the day, including King Charles II, and he left an invaluable record of seismic events in the nation’s history, including the restoration of the monarchy, the plague that devastated the country in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in the following year.

Journal of a Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. Best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe wrote about the same plague as Pepys, but 57 years later, apparently drawing on a his uncle’s diary. He discusses the efforts to stop the plague from spreading, including parts of the country self-quarantining, and the superstitious response to the illness by many people as well as the villainy of quack doctors.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter. Born in 1890, the American novelist and short-story writer suffered ill-health as a young woman, and almost died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. She drew on her experience in writing this tragic love story.

The Last Man by Mary Shelley. Published in 1826 by the author of Frankenstein, this apocalyptic novel is set in 2100, when a plague sweeps across Europe and America. At the end, just one man is left alive, with a sheepdog as his only companion.

What do these classics teach us?

Lessons of history

As the columnist David Brooks has written in the New York Times: “Some disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can bring people together, but if history is any judge, pandemics generally drive them apart. These are crises in which social distancing is a virtue. Dread overwhelms the normal bonds of human affection.” Fear drives people in these moments, but so too does shame, caused by the brutal things that have to be done to slow the spread of the disease.

But there are hopeful lessons too. There is one exception to this sad litany: health care workers. In every pandemic, there are doctors and nurses who respond with unbelievable heroism and compassion. That’s happening today. Maybe this time, we’ll learn from their example – and realise that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take steps to fight the moral disease that accompanies the physical one.

You Decide

  1. What is the best book you have read about a historical event?
  2. In a stressful situation over which you have no control, is it better to read something that informs you about it, or something escapist?


  1. Write a one-page story in which you are a sheepdog meeting the only human you have ever seen.
  2. Write a one-page diary of the Covid-19 pandemic, in the style of Samuel Pepys.

Some People Say...

“Somebody who only reads newspapers and, at best, books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses.”

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), German-born scientist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many great books about historical events do not appear until long afterwards. Charles Dickens wrote his novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, 60 years after it happened; Leo Tolstoy wrote his masterpiece War and Peace at a similar distance from the war between Russia and France that it describes. Although Samuel Pepys’s diary is a contemporary account of the plague, it was never intended for publication: written in code, it was not deciphered until the early 19th century.
What do we not know?
Whether Pepys would be keeping a diary about the present pandemic if he were alive today. We now have so many ways of recording things, from video clips to newspaper articles, that writing down your own version of events might not seem very important. On the other hand, a diary is a good way of ordering your thoughts about important developments.

Word Watch

A dangerous infection, still present in some parts of the world that is usually caught from drinking unclean water.
King Charles II
Ruler of England 1660–1685. He was forced into exile in 1651 after the royalists were defeated in the Civil War but was later invited back to take the throne.
Of enormous size or effect.
Restoration of the monarchy
The process by which Charles became king after the years of parliamentary rule.
Quack doctors
Unqualified people claiming medical knowledge or skills.
Referring to the end of the world, or the collapse of civilisation.
Give credence to
Believe. From the latin “credo”


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