Anna and Elinor spend the day visiting widows and widowers who have survived the plague, since the elderly are much less susceptible than the young. One man, James Mallion, asks Anna why someone like him, old and ready to die, is spared, while the young people are mowed down. Anna is unable to answer him.
James’ question recalls the moment when Anna asked why skilled and useful Maggie died and the Bradfords survived. The rampant illogic and unfairness of death in this catastrophe suggests there isn’t any rational force behind it.
On their walk home, Anna and Elinor muse over how the plague chooses its victims. They can understand some aspects of contagion scientifically – for example, that the disease spreads through proximity – but they have no idea why even among families, the plague strikes some people and not others. Anna references Mr. Stanley, why believes that the fate of each victim is part of God’s plan, and that God inflicts suffering on people whom he wants to spare pain in the afterlife. This theory contradicts the Anglican doctrine that both women have been taught to believe, but they wonder if he might be right.
Anna and Elinor are remarkably flexible in trying to understand the plague, willing to embrace the ideas of other religious sects. However, as much as they entertain religious theories, they focus on scientific evidence like contagion through proximity. This shows that science is ascending in importance, especially to the female healers.
Elinor begins coughing and Anna is terrified, checking her for fever and insisting she sit down. Trying to be reassuring, Elinor tells Anna briskly not to worry and not to inform Mompellion that she might be ill. But she won’t show Anna her handkerchief, which suggests she’s been coughing up blood. Anna begins to weep, foreseeing the inevitable death of her friend.
Elinor’s sudden illness reminds Anna again of the thin line between death and life. While she’s normally stalwart—and even numb—in the face of the plague, the danger to her only friend breaks through her defenses and elicits an emotional response.
In the next few days, Elinor’s fever rises. While Mompellion tries to spend as much time with her as possible, Anna stays at the rectory when he is called away to other tasks and tends Elinor with loving care. Elinor has provided the first “motherly concern” Anna has enjoyed since the death of her own mother, while becoming a close friend, even though social conventions normally prohibit intimacy between members of different classes.
As Elinor’s condition becomes graver and Anna becomes more exhausted and desperate, she even blames herself for Elinor’s illness, interpreting it as God’s punishment for considering Elinor a friend and for being jealous of her relationship with Mompellion. At the same time, she becomes more and more protective of Elinor. Whenever she has to leave the room to give Mompellion and Elinor some privacy, she resents the separation from her friend; she takes to hovering around the rectory even when Mompellion says it would be better for her to go home.
Although Anna has decided it’s useless to worry about God’s anger, she reverts to this vein of thought out of terror. What’s additionally distressing is that her grief for Elinor and desire to stay with her friend isn’t sanctioned by the community. Mompellion, her husband, has the right to privacy and intimacy with Elinor, while Anna, who feels she is family, must contain her grief and go home.
In a moment of lucidity, Elinor says she’s lucky to have been blessed with a husband like Mompellion and a friend like Anna. She says that the plague has changed Anna, making her stronger and more confident in her abilities. Finally, she tells Anna to be a friend to Mompellion and take care of him after her death.
Elinor ranks Anna equally with her husband among her emotional attachments, showing that, like Anna, she considers their friendship life-defining. In telling Anna to take care of Mompellion, she continues to encourage her friend to emulate her, but Elinor suggests she should do this not by imitating her character but by replacing her as caretaker to Mompellion.
Elinor becomes delirious and cries out first for her erstwhile lover, Charles, and then for Mompellion, speaking in such an intimate tone that Anna is embarrassed. Mompellion appears and dismisses Anna to the kitchen, who sleeps sitting up in the kitchen. When she returns to the bedroom in the morning, she finds Mompellion asleep at the foot of the bed and Elinor awake and well, her fever broken.
In Elinor’s delirium, Anna detects a romantic intimacy from which she is necessarily excluded. Even with Elinor’s affirmation of their friendship, it seems that her marriage emerges from this night as the stronger relationship.
Mompellion returns to his duties with fresh energy, and is playful and intimate with Elinor. He asks Elinor’s advice of how to dispose of the large, eerie crosses left in the abandoned Gordon cottage. As they confer, Anna goes about her household chores and feels left out of their new intimacy.
Even though Anna has an unusual intimacy with the Mompellions, it’s sometimes painfully apparent that she’s a servant. Her friendship with Elinor isn’t strong enough to overcome all class distinctions, but as it grows stronger it competes with Elinor’s marriage.
Mompellion tells the town that they must make a great bonfire and burn as many of their worldly goods as possible, both as a sacrifice to God and to dispose of potentially contaminated items. He reminds the villagers that Urith Gordon died because of sharing disease-bearing clothing, and that fire has been “a symbol of rebirth” since time immemorial. The villagers agree, but reluctantly, no longer so impressed with Mompellion’s sermons and explanations.
The rationale behind Mompellion’s bonfire is a bewildering mix of religious theory and scientific necessity. At this point, no longer so certain in his ability to guide the people through the plague, Mompellion is casting around for a variety of explanations, some based on traditional beliefs and others on new scientific principles. However, what Mompellion’s bonfire most closely recalls is John Gordon’s superstitious and ill-advised burning of all his possessions.
Anna brings her worldly goods to be burned, except for a jerkin that had belonged to Jamie. The pile of belongings to be burned seems especially sad because the villagers are poor and own so few things. She contrasts their sparse possessions with the Bradfords’ luxury and excess, and reflects that the Bradfords might be too scared to come back, even to reclaim their valuable property. To Anna, the destruction of “these humble things” represents the loss of human memories and experiences: a child’s crib shows the loss of “peace in a mother’s heart,” while the hose which had “held the muscled calves of strong young miners” shows the loss of trades and daily routines.
Just like the landscape and the unchanged sheep, the possessions about to be burned are a painful reminder of better times. Natural processes and inanimate possessions don’t correspond to or change with human suffering. This cognitive dissonance suggests that there isn’t a grand guiding force behind that suffering, and that instead it lacks definite meaning.
Mompellion dramatically starts the fire, calling on God to accept their sacrifice and deliver the town. The villagers sing Psalm 91, but since the few survivors left are “tired and broken,” the ritual of prayer lacks its usual force and comfort.
Religious rituals, once a sustaining force, are no longer enough to comfort the weary and bereaved. This shows the devolution both of community norms and of faith in the presence of God.
As the villagers watch their possessions burn, Brand and Robert Snee arrive, carrying Aphra, who is dressed and veiled in black. Brand has caught her trying to sell a charm to his sister, Chastity; he announces that she is the “ghost of Anys Gowdie” who has been preying on the villagers’ desperation. Enraged, people start to throw mud; Anna fears that if Mompellion doesn’t do something quickly, they will become a mob.
Aphra’s exposure shows just how unfounded are the spreading superstitions about the Devil. Like Josiah, Aphra behaves atrociously when there are no social norms to restrain her. Her behavior incites a mob—also a violation of community norms. Only Anna realizes that the townspeople risk descending to Aphra’s level through their fear.
Mompellion manages to quiet the crowd, and says that they will formally bring charges against Aphra the next morning. He tells Brand and Robert to take charge of Aphra until the hearing. Meanwhile, Anna takes Aphra’s daughter, Faith, to her own cottage for the night.
Mompellion has to act as police and judge, besides his duties of priest. He tries to fulfill these roles to the best of his ability, but while clinging to old rituals of justice he carries them out on an ad hoc basis, which will lead to problems later.
In their rage at Aphra’s behavior, Brand and Robert confine her in a particularly cruel manner. Robert stores manure from his pigs in a natural cavern, and they drop Aphra into the excrement-filled pit. They leave her there all night, and she has to constantly scrabble at the walls to avoid sinking and suffocating. As a result of this ordeal, Aphra loses her sanity and is reduced to a “gibbering, broken thing when Brand and Robert guiltily produce her for trial at the village green.
Although they’re right to be outraged, Brand and Robert take vigilante action to punish Aphra, causing larger consequences – including the loss of her sanity – than they intended. In a sense, the sewer in which Aphra spends the night represents the experience of the plague: grotesque but meaningless, it strips away the veneer of civilization and fundamentally warps Aphra’s character, just as the plague does to the community.
Anna remarks that while public punishments are common in larger market towns, where criminals in the stocks might be mercilessly mocked and pelted with fruit by people who don’t know them, that kind of thing doesn’t happen in Eyam, where most people know and have some sympathy for each other. Accordingly, even the people Aphra deceived are unwilling to inflict anything further on her. Mompellion declares that Aphra will give back the money she extorted when she is well.
It’s evident that this kind of punishment, reminiscent of the brutal stocks in large cities, is ineffective, since Aphra isn’t cognizant enough to regret her crime or make restitution. Moreover, while the people she swindled feel pity for her state, they don’t seem to feel a sense of justice or resolution. Thus, resentment of the crime lingers in the community to cause further problems.
Elinor and Anna take Aphra back to her cottage and begin the difficult task of cleaning her. As Aphra returns to her senses, she starts cursing and insulting them. Anna wants to take care of Faith until Aphra is more stable, but Aphra refuses, accusing Anna of trying to steal her child for the barren Elinor.
While issues surrounding maternity usually allow female characters to bond, Aphra is so delusional that she warps Anna’s concern into something sinister. Her own greed and malevolence prevent her from accessing the kind of female intimacy Elinor and Anna enjoy.
Worried about Faith, Anna returns every day with food and medicine, but Aphra won’t open the door or let her speak to the girl. Eventually, Anna doesn’t even see Faith looking out the window anymore. One night, she walks to the cottage and finds a half-naked Aphra dancing around a fire, chanting nonsense, and prostrating herself as if praying. She has a snake in her hands.
Anna is afraid, but driven by “mother-courage” and desperation to rescue Faith, she goes inside. She sees that Faith is dead and Aphra has hung her body from the ceiling, covering her plague sores with chalk. Anna tells Aphra to have “pity” and bury Faith so she can “lie in peace,” but Aphra shrieks that pity and peace don’t exist.
In the chaos of the plague, it’s now possible not only to abandon conventional niceties like class and religious distinctions, but fundamental practices like safely burying the dead. While Anna wants to think of Aphra’s insanity as an aberration, it’s also possible that this grotesque behavior is an expression of true human nature, revealed when restraining social structures fade away.
Aphra continues to dance and chant all day, while Mompellion attempts to remonstrate with her and prays outside her door. He considers sending men to forcibly remove Faith’s body for burial but decides against it, fearing that the decaying corpse would spread disease and that the sight of Aphra in her madness would incite new fears of witchcraft.
Mompellion understands that the community’s grip on sanity is tenuous, and that news of Aphra’s insanity might send everyone into hysteria. At the beginning of the novel, it seemed liberating to jettison old conventions. However, now it’s necessary to cling to them in order to preserve the town’s basic safety.