The Great Fire

ENGL 520

Dr. Fike


We are attempting to ground the literature of the 17th century in a historical perspective.  ENGL 520 focuses on the following historical events:  the Civil War, colonization, the Great Plague, and the Great Fire.  Today we will discuss selections that deal with the latter two events.


Here is your assignment:  Overbury (218), Pepys (1047), Hyde (622), and Evelyn (800).  I do not have great interest in the selections by Overbury; although we will not discuss them in class, you should read them so that we can make a point related to Evelyn and Pepys (pronounced “peeps”).  For class discussion, you or (more likely) you and your group should prepare one of the following topics/questions.


  1. Using information from the internet or the library, develop a 1-2 page factual handout about the Great Plague of 1666.  In class, you should tell us the story of the plague.  (We are reading only one brief text directly about it—by Hyde.  So it will be good to flesh it out a bit.  If you want to tap Pepys’s Diary, you will find rich material.) 


  1. Go on the internet or to the library and develop a 1-2 page factual handout about the Great Fire of London of 1666.  We have three narratives of this event—by Pepys, Hyde, and Evelyn.  But what is missing is a statistical overview.  They provide small details but only begin to sum up the catastrophe.  You should aim to give the class the “big picture.”  In class, tell us the story of the fire.


Note:  If you are responding to #1 or #2, you should make a brief presentation in class.  Remember that your classmates can read the information off your handout.


  1. We don’t need to spend any time deciphering either Pepys or Evelyn:  their selections are narrative and quite clear.  We will instead have a look at Pepys’s style in the following passages.  Be able to identify specific features of that style; also be able to make generalizations about his techniques.  What does Pepys write about, how does he craft his sentences, and what is the effect?  (Remember:  He made notes and wrote his entries for specific days at a later time; this implies that the entries are carefully written—that they deserve attention as art.)


    1. Page 1048, left column (the sentence that begins “Having stayed” and ends with the first period in the next column).
    2. Page 1053, left column (“At home did go” through the end of the paragraph). 
    3. Page 1055, left column, first paragraph (“Thence to Bednall Green,” etc.).


  1. What great images do you find in Pepys’s writing?  Pay particular attention to the following passages.  Can you make a generalization about Pepys’s eye for detail?  (This is not a touch question; it is mainly a listing exercise.)


    1. Page 1048, left column, end of top paragraph.
    2. Page 1049, right column.
    3. Page 1050, left column, start of entry for September 3rd.
    4. Page 1052, right column, first half of new paragraph.
    5. Page 1053, top of left column.
    6. Page 1054, left column, top paragraph.


  1. Here is a critical quotation on Pepys:  “In the psychological truth of this great Diary we recognize the fundamental and reassuring sameness of human nature through the centuries” (Scribner).  Do you agree?  Pepys, Hyde, and Evelyn record not only the Great Fire’s destructiveness but also citizens’ actions and reactions.  What points about human nature emerge?  In what ways do you see similar behavior in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, or the California fires of fall 2007?  Do you see something of our own psychology in the three narratives of the Great Fire?