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The city and the Story

Ariza | 22 July 2006, 7:28am

I am reading Daniel Defoe's Journal of the plague Year this week. It tells the story of the plague that ravaged London in 1666. As Defoe creates the slow progress of the plague through the city I found the narrative interrupted by repeated mention of the localities affected. I could see Defoe sitting down patiently with the map and taking care, plotting and mentioning the progress in his growing manuscript. But why? Wasn't he clear that he was writing a fictional account? More importantly what purpose did it serve but clutter the narrative with unnecessary names?

Even in the narrative of Dickens we find London interrupting, in Dostoevsky Petersburg is mapped out as we follow the characters through the city. I am also told that in James Joyce's Ulysses the character Leopold Bloom follows a path that has since been made famous as some sought of a Bloom's line. Obviously these writers took a lot of pain to put these references into their story lines. But why?  Sometimes these innocuous references become famous like with 221b Baker Street and Sherlock Holmes or the 9 3/4th platform of the Harry Potter books. Even those are firm settings in a story which although non-existent are more than fictional. Think of Hardy in Wessex, Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha and so on and on. This is not just limited to Books. New York forms a character in many movies, Los Angles, Paris and London for others. But this is especially clear in the movies of someone like Woody Allen in which New-York comes out like a canvas on the background of which stories are told. He did this with his recent Match Point where, for a change, he uses London.

I can think of the people living in London now reading the Journal. I could imagine myself to be one of them and living in one of the localities that Defoe mentions where there is a mass grave with hundreds of people buried in it. It can bring history alive, when you know that the ground you stand on is littered with it. That explains Defoe. Then there is the argument for narrative necessity where the author finds it easy to create the image of a character for a reader by telling him where he lives, how he travels, where he works. This is as much a need as describing what he feels. That most of his readers might not live in the city of his story doesn

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