Pandemics and epidemics in literature

Mysterious illnesses, epidemics, and pandemics have always played a role in storytelling and literature, from classical works to modern dystopian novels. In early depictions, epidemics were considered divine punishments or portrayed as supernatural events. Often the occurrence of an epidemic provided moral commentary on the characters in the story or on the society they lived in.

By the early 20th century, scientists had discovered that epidemics were caused by microorganisms, and public health experts began suggesting more empirical ways to prevent or limit epidemics. Consequently, the supernatural aspects disappeared from many stories, only to be replaced by more political and apocalyptic elements.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of epidemics in famous works of fiction and literature. Do you remember the epidemics and illnesses in these works?


The Iliad (8th century BCE)
Homer’s epic poem begins with a plague in the Greek encampment at Troy. The disease had been sent by the god Apollo to punish the Greeks for Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis.


Oedipus Rex (429 BC)
After Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, a “dreadful pestilence” appears in Thebes. To rid his kingdom of that plague, Oedipus must find the person who murdered Laius (father of Oedipus), not knowing that Oedipus himself is the murderer.


The Decameron (1353)
The Decameron is a set of novellas written as a frame story by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. In the narrative, 10 people self-isolate in a villa near Florence for 10 days during the Black Death. For entertainment, they tell each other stories, ranging from allegories to bawdy tales to tragedies.


The Canterbury Tales (1400)
The Black Death is mentioned in only one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “The Pardoner’s Tale.” The plague, it seems, spares honest people like the boy and taverner, but kills those lost to immortality and greed. As seen in earlier stories featuring epidemic illness, death from the plague is linked to the evils of individuals and societies.


Romeo and Juliet (1591-1595)
Shakespeare refers to the Black Death in many of his plays, but did not use it in the development of his plots. The notable exception is Romeo and Juliet, in which a friar is sent to deliver the message to Romeo that Juliet has faked her death. Unfortunately, the friar is quarantined before he can leave Verona and is unable to get word to Romeo.


The Last Man (1826)
Written by English novelist Mary Shelley, The Last Man is one of the first apocalyptic novels. Narrator Lionel Verney tells of a 21st century world ravaged by plague and extremism, ending in the gradual, inevitable destruction of humanity.


Jane Eyre (1847)
Long before she sets foot in Thornfield Hall, a young Jane Eyre lives through an outbreak of tuberculosis at Lowood Institution. Jane remains healthy despite the aunt who sent her to Lowood in hopes that Jane would die from the contagion. Tuberculosis does claim the life Jane’s best friend, Helen Burns, just as it did the lives of Charlotte Bronte’s sisters, Elizabeth and Maria. They died in 1825 after being sent to the Clergy’s Daughters’ School.


The Scarlet Plague (1912)
Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague describes a 2013 outbreak of hemorrhagic fever called the “Red Death” (a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death). The disease kills most of the world’s population, and those surviving begin to doubt their memories of a once-advanced civilization.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, is a collection of three short novels about the 1918-19 influenza epidemic. Porter experienced the flu firsthand, falling sick in October 1918.


The Plague (1947)
The Plague is Albert Camus’ novel about a virus that spreads uncontrollably and ends up killing half the population of an “ordinary town.” The novel has existentialist overtones and examines  the inability of the characters to affect their own destinies.


The Stand (1978)
The Stand by Stephen King describes what happens next in a world where the “super-flu” has killed 99 percent of the population. The survivors are scared, scattered, divided, and facing a choice between good and evil.


The Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001)
When the plague arrives in an isolated village in England, housemaid Anna Frith emerges as the heroine that even the most cynical readers will cheer for. The Year of Wonders was written by Geraldine Brooks.


Do you have any other works to add to this list?


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