Pandemics In Literature
Sometimes, history and reality makes more sense when viewed through the eyes of fiction
In my humble reading experience, I realized that sometimes, history makes more sense when viewed through the eyes of fiction. When a story set at a particular time is told, the reality of that age is laid down before the readers with raw emotions, describing the peculiarities of an era with great detail.
Our generation is witnessing the greatest pandemic in history. Throughout the ages, many deadly plagues and outbreaks claimed the lives of millions. There have been hundreds of books in various languages containing themes on these outbreaks, from the ancient plagues to the British Bubonic plague and the Spanish flu of the previous century. From epics to historical fiction and sci-fi, pandemics and epidemics have often been a theme. Reading those books now, we find it relatable, dread at the horror of it, and at the same time, hope for a better ending.
Let us look at some among the hundreds of works written revolving around pandemics and outbreaks:
Iliad by Homer (8th century)
The oldest surviving Western literature and one the greatest epics in the world, Iliad, begins with a plague outbreak. The plague is sent by Apollo in response to a Trojan priest’s request to rescue his daughter from Agamemnon. The rest of the Iliad is a continuation of the complex elements that follow.
The Last Man (1826) by Mary Shelly
This apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction novel, written in the Romantic Age, is set at the end of the 21st century (2073-2100). Shelly claimed to have derived the inspiration of her novel from a collection of prophetic writings that she discovered in Sibyl’s cave near Naples. In the plot, a plague outbreak greatly influences the political and social conditions of a city and later dwindles the population across continents. The novel progresses into the struggles of survival of the last human beings who survived the plague, ultimately ending in the last man who survives.
The Journal of the Plague Year (1722) by Daniel Defoe
Defoe penned this document 50 years after the bubonic plague outbreak in London (1665-66), from historical sources. Here is an extract from his work, which is about the horrid situations of quarantined families.
“It was generally in such house that we heard the most dismal shrieks and outcries of the poor people, terrified and even frightened to death by the sight of the condition of their dearest relation and by the terror of being imprisoned as they were.”
The Scarlet Plague (1912) by Jack London
This novel is perhaps the most relatable piece of fiction to the present COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a post-apocalyptic fiction set in the year 2073. The protagonist, James Smith, is one of the survivors of the red plague that depopulated the earth in 2013. He narrates his survival story and the pre-pandemic life to his grandchildren. Science had failed to defeat the virus and ultimately, the remaining survivors become hunter-gatherers, with little civilization.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1918) by Katherine Anne Porter
This romantic novel revolves around the Spanish flu (influenza) pandemic as well as the First World War. It brings out the themes of true love during a time when death is always expected.
The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus
The Plague (La Peste) by French writer Albert Camus is an existentialist classic, in which the life of the characters change drastically after the plague outbreak. The story is set in Oran, a French Algerian city, where an outbreak of the bubonic plague forced them to close the city gates, thereby isolating themselves from the rest of the world. The events in The Plague will definitely be relatable to a reader who experienced the pandemic of 2020 – prohibition of travel, suspension of mail, lack of resources and income, starvation among the poor, depressed spirit and introverted behavior, isolation…. The novel covers the whole course of the epidemic, from outbreak to its retreat. Camus used the cholera epidemic that occurred at Oran in 1849, as source material.
Severance (2018) by Ling Ma
In this satirical science fiction, the world is at the mercy of a deadly virus called the Shen virus, which originates from China. It is also a tale of survival and has earned a lot of critical appreciation for its contemporary significance.
Apart from these, there are abundant works written on the pandemic, and we can expect at least a few in the coming years. What we feel after reading them now may depend on our outlook: we may either feel skeptical or optimistic that assures us that this too shall pass; God has always given man the strength and capacity to evolve and overcome the worst.