Julia Hauser’s plague chronicle fascinates but falls short on promised insights into pandemics’ societal toll

The Moral Contagion follows the strategy of complementing facts about the bubonic plague with fictionalised elements and creative gestures.

Published : Jun 26, 2024 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

A coloured wood engraving showing a street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners. It is captioned, “Bring Out Your Dead”.

A coloured wood engraving showing a street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners. It is captioned, “Bring Out Your Dead”. | Photo Credit: Wellcome Library, London/ Wiki Commons

Amazon.com lists well over 180 books solely on the bubonic plague. If one includes its guest appearances in epidemic-related books, then the list would number in the tens of thousands. What, then, would motivate a respected historian to write yet another book on the bubonic plague and its impact on the world through the ages? In her author’s note, Julia Hauser provides a number of reasons: the shadow of COVID-19, questions about societal response, change in moral codes, have us engage “in critical reflection” about pandemics, etc.

The Moral Contagion
By Julia Hauser, illustrated by Sarnath Banerjee
Pages: 140
Price: Rs.699

Her reasons sound quite truthful, but they are not what the book is about. Almost none of the questions she raises in the introduction is really addressed, let alone answered. This is a book about the bubonic plague, not any moral contagion. Which is fine. Some topics are inexhaustible in their intrinsic fascination. The bubonic plague is varied in its causes (fleas and a wide variety of rodents), disgusting in its manifestations (pus-filled lymph nodes, gangrene), and fatal in its prognosis (it wiped out almost 50 million people in the 14th century alone). In short, few pestilences can match the grotesque charm that the bubonic plague possesses in such ample measure.

The Moral Contagion by Julia Hauser

The Moral Contagion by Julia Hauser | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The Moral Contagion, copiously illustrated by Sarnath Banerjee, narrates the impact the bubonic plague had on different civilisations over the centuries. Ever since the advent of “new journalism” in the 1950s, fictional techniques have been used to enhance non-fictional narratives. Thus, each chapter deals with a specific place and time and introduces a set of fictionalised (but historical) characters directly impacted by the plague. Giovanni Boccaccio makes an appearance as does Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora; the ever-horny Samuel Pepys; the doctor Alexander Russell; and many other characters, famous and not-so-famous. The characters are mostly there to spice up the narrative, but in a few places (like the Arab thinkers or the doctors who identified the bacillus), they play a genuinely important role.

Similarly, the book’s back cover says that Hauser’s text is “enhanced by Sarnath Banerjee’s wry illustrations”. I found them droll, but perhaps the overall effect is akin to watching a serious movie accompanied by an oddly jaunty sound track. Banerjee’s vast talent is a Kolkata Rabelais, an unfrocked Marxian; here it is on its best behaviour but still cannot resist an occasional secretive swig from the hip flask. For example, in the middle of a sombre discussion on the plague in Ethiopia, Banerjee inserts a panel depicting Lee Falk’s Phantom—diagonally striped underwear, mask, leather boots, crossed arms—with his best friend Guran, grass skirt and spear, lurking in the background.

Worthy achievement

The strategy of complementing facts with people, imagined dialogues, illustrations, and other creative gestures mostly works. But Hauser has an intractable problem to deal with. Irrespective of the place or time, the story revolves around the same sequence of events: a few people get suddenly sick and die, then lots of people get suddenly sick and die, and then some more people die, and finally, people go back to dying in more predictable ways. How do humans respond? As expected. They quarantine, scapegoat, sniff this, eat that, dip in water, avoid water, listen to quacks, pray, but in the end, it is simply the end.

Also Read | A coming plague: Review of ‘Foreign Bodies’ by Simon Schama

In the 1960s and 1970s, the psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier, and their colleagues showed that when conscious creatures are repeatedly placed in unchangeable circumstances that cause them great suffering, they develop what psychology now calls “learned helplessness”. They give up, turn passive, apathetic. In some extreme cases, they just lie down and die.

Hauser does not discuss learned helplessness, but given the scale of the plagues and the lack of effective medical knowledge, I wondered how our species managed not to succumb psychologically. Why did our species just not give up? Of course, some of us did. But why did most people keep having children? Keep working on love poems? Keep setting off on trade? Why on earth did Isaac Newton keep working on the theory of planetary orbits as 17th century London succumbed to plague?

Also Read | Disease and ecology

I do not think The Moral Contagion offers any answers to the existential question of how we are able (enough of us anyway) to find reason enough in some Yeatsian “lonely impulse of delight” to keep going even in the most desperate of circumstances. The book did not set out to provide such answers, and I do not believe any single book can. Nevertheless, Hauser and Banerjee’s book does lead one to see just how astonishing it is that our species is still here. It is a worthy achievement.

Anil Menon is the author, most recently, of the short story collection, The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun.

More stories from this issue

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment