When Elinor and Anna return to the rectory, they find Mompellion in the churchyard, furiously digging one grave after another. He’s exhausted, but he refuses to stop, since six people need to be buried right away and the sexton, whose job it is to dig graves, was overtaxed by the unceasing work and died of heart failure that morning. Anna worries that Mompellion suffer the same fate, since he spends all his time attending to the dead and dying and never sleeps. She suggests that they find another man to do the work, but Mompellion says there aren’t enough healthy men to carry out the normal work of the village as it is.
As the plague claims more victims, more and more of the community’s tasks are left undone. The problems posed by this trend are especially evident when it comes to burying the dead, which is both a spiritual and a public health necessity. Mompellion is determined to preserve community norms as much as possible – but there’s only so much he can do.
Mompellion performs rites over the dead and immediately leaves to attend those who are sick that evening. Elinor worries aloud that the force of his will is greater than the strength of his body. She says that his will makes him “do what any normal man cannot do.”
Elinor’s comment foreshadows Mompellion’s later revelation about the true nature of his marriage. While Elinor clearly admires his strong will, Anna will come to see it as something twisted and pernicious.
The next day, Anna accompanies Mompellion to the Merrill farm, where Jakob Merril is dying. Brand, still living at the farm, is distracting Jakob’s son Seth while Anna relieves the ten-year-old Charity of the household chores, preparing food for their supper. Jakob confesses to Mompellion his guilt over his treatment of his late wife, Maudie; he says he was never kind to her and spent all their money on drink and prostitutes. Now, he worries that God is inflicting punishment for his sins on his children, who as orphans will be destitute and vulnerable to exploitation, likely to end up married too early or languishing in a poorhouse.
Jakob interprets his death and his children’s fate as divine punishment. The assumption that God is an active participant in worldly events can be a comforting belief, because it rationalizes otherwise horrible events. However, it can also be deeply disturbing, as when it leads Jakob to conclude that God wants his innocent children to suffer for his own misdeeds.
Mompellion comforts Jakob, telling him that even sins and “low ways” originate with God. Even the lustful King David was favored by God, who gave him the Psalms. God has taken Maudie away to a better life in heaven, and when Jakob dies they will be able to reconcile.
Mompellion handles the situation expertly, assuring the dying man that his children aren’t being punished while leaving his religious faith intact. Here, Mompellion appears to have a thoughtful and compassionate concept of sin and punishment.
On a more earthly note, Mompellion says that God has sent Brand to Jakob as a gift, to protect and take care of his children. He arranges for Jakob to leave his farm jointly to Brand, Charity, and Seth. When they leave, the children are comforted and Jakob is ready to die, finally at peace with himself.
As the only leader left in Eyam, Mompellion performs a lot of public services, like deciding what happens to orphans. His careful arrangements for Charity and Seth show a deep commitment to maintaining the community’s norms in the face of catastrophe.
That night, Mompellion has to dig two more graves without even a pause for dinner, and Anna knows he can’t go on like this. Reluctantly, she visits Josiah’s cottage, where she finds her many stepsiblings ill-fed and bearing bruises and her father still in bed. Pretending to be deferent and respectful, she begs him to undertake the job of gravedigger, offering to pay him in lambs from her flock. He agrees, and Anna is happy to have lightened Mompellion’s burdens.
Josiah has always been a force of anarchy, disregarding community mores even when they were more rigidly enforced. His negative behavior shows how strong norms can positively benefit a community.
As the winter progresses, Anna is so busy nursing the sick she barely has time to sleep. She doesn’t even notice the passing of Yuletide, instead marking time by the babies she delivers, to Kate Talbot and Lottie Mowbray.
Religious symbols like Yuletide have declined in importance, especially to Anna. Midwifery has become the most important aspect in her life. This shows not only Anna’s growing self-identification as a healer, but the extent to which science is becoming important in the community.
Since most laborers and skilled workers are sick, the town doesn’t produce enough to support itself and relies for sustenance on the Earl of Chatsworth, who continues to send provisions diligently. On the other hand, while the Bradfords are safe and sound in Oxforshire, they send neither money nor food or even any words of support.
While the Earl of Chatsworth uses his resources to organize aid for Eyam (even if it is in his own interests to do so), the Bradfords are completely negligent. Their contrasting behavior shows two different possibilities for class privilege.
Anna and Elinor turn the rectory kitchen into a laboratory, in which they experiment with different ways of preparing herbs in order to best “extract a plant’s virtues.” They make teas, syrups, and salves, which are used for two main purposes: to alleviate pain in those afflicted by the plague, and to strengthen the healthy and prevent them from getting sick. They even embark on a primitive public health campaign, teaching people how to recognize wild plants that are good for their health and immunity.
Anna and Elinor quickly come into their own as bona fide doctors. It’s important that they rely on folk wisdom, which turns out to be the most scientific knowledge practiced, as well as on common plants. Their medicine is aligned with the common people, rather than the privileged establishment.
Anna comes to dread Sundays, since the empty pews in the church emphasize the limitations of their attempts to “arrest the Plague’s ravages.” However, to show solidarity in the face of catastrophe, the Puritan Thomas Stanley begins attending services, as well as Eyam’s few non-conformist families. Moreover, Elinor invites Anna to share her pew, saying that their work together has made them family. Anna regards these changes as “wonders.”
The new attendees in church show that community norms have changed, but this time it’s for the better. In reaction to the plague, people have developed more tolerance towards different religious ideas. Anna uses the word “wonders” again to describe these developments, showing that the plague has positive and negative ramifications.
However, in March Mompellion closes the church, since the plague thrives in warm weather and large assemblies are an opportunity for contagion. Instead, they will meet in Cucklett Delf, a large field where families can stand at a safe distance from each other. Mompellion continues explaining the plague as the test of a loving God, saying that even the most loving parents must inflict punishment on children so that they grow into good adults.
As the plague continues, Mompellion has to keep altering his explanations: the plague is no longer a test from God but a parental punishment. As pastor, Mompellion supposedly speaks for God, but it’s increasingly clear he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.
The villagers are devastated at having to give up one of their few sustaining rituals – even more so when Mompellion says that, to stop the spread of disease, they must bury the dead immediately on their own property rather than in the hallowed ground of the churchyard. The congregation almost revolts, and the strain of calming them causes Mompellion to faint. However, Mr. Stanley steps forward and scolds the congregation for clinging to superstitions, reminding them that God will know where the dead are buried even if it isn’t in the churchyard. As Brand carries a dazed Mompellion out of the church, the congregation recites Psalm 88, a desperate plea for god’s help. Mompellion continues to whisper the psalm even as he falls asleep in the rectory.
Even the clergymen realize that public health is much more important than religious orthodoxy. Mr. Stanley’s brusque explanation that God will know where the dead are buried shows how religion can function as a prop for social mores, adapting as community needs change. However, Mompellion’s collapse shows a moment of weakness, as it’s hard for him to maintain his ardent faith in God when none of his interpretations of the plague seem to prove true.
While Mompellion continues to attend to the dying, Elinor and Anna take on the case of nine-year-old Merry Wickford, the daughter of Quaker couple George and Cleath Wickford. The Wickfords moved to Eyam after they were run out of another town for their dissenting faith. One night, George Wickford saw a shooting star, which local superstitions said indicated the location of lead seams in the moors. George staked a claim and worked at it with his entire family to produce the dish of ore required by law to prove the seam was good and cement ownership of the claim. The mine claim was the sole sustenance of the Wickford family, lifting them out of poverty; but now the plague has killed the entire Wickford family except for Merry, who risks having her claim “nicked” by another miner, David Burton, since she can’t produce a dish of ore every nine weeks, the amount stipulated by law to keep a claim.
Like Mompellion, David Burton is clinging to old conventions in the midst of new catastrophes. However, in his case it’s clear that this convention, which permits miners to “nick” unattended claims, must be amended in fairness to Merry Wickford, who will be penniless without the security provided by the claim. It’s becoming increasingly important to decide which conventions should stay and which should be eliminated.
As the ninth week approaches, Anna informs Elinor of the problem and Elinor suggests that they “get the dish out” themselves. Anna thinks this is even more ill-advised than Elinor’s insistence that she become a midwife; her own husband died in a mine accident, and women generally aren’t allowed in the mines out of a superstition that they cause bad luck. However, Elinor is set on undertaking the task and even lies to Mompellion about their whereabouts, so he doesn’t do it himself and die of exhaustion.
Just as they become doctors when doctors are needed, Elinor and Anna jump into another field dominated by men: mining. However, this is a somewhat different proposition, since neither of them know the first thing about mining.
Anna and Elinor go to the Wickford cottage, where Merry now lives alone. When they tell her they intend to save her mine claim, she is elated and decides to help them. The women arm themselves with Sam’s old tools and the Wickford’s leather mining suits and hats. Elinor remarks wryly that her highborn ancestors would disapprove of her descent into common labor, while Anna reflects that Sam would be horrified if he knew what danger she was exposing herself to.
Elinor’s breezy approach to the dangerous task contrasts with Anna’s apprehension, showing lingering differences in their class attitudes despite their close friendship. Elinor’s privileged upbringing has generally shielded her from physical calamity, whereas Anna spent her childhood and married life worrying about accidents.
Anna and Elinor descend via ladder into the mine, which is slick, wet and dark. At any moment, the walls could cave in, or they could slip and injure themselves fatally. Remembering her husband’s death, Anna panics, but Elinor calms her and cautions her not to “let your fears be your master.” The women follow the trail of old pick-work and, when it ends, begin chipping on the rock. The work is punishingly hard, even for Anna, who has spent her whole life doing hard manual labor. But for Anna the greatest challenge is keeping her fear and frustration at bay, especially as after hours they have only eked out a small amount of “bouse,” or viable ore.
Just as she does during Mary Daniels’ childbirth, Elinor provides a steadying voice when Anna begins to panic. In both cases, Anna (who is physically stronger and more skilled) has to do most of the work, while Elinor strategizes and keeps her calm. However, Anna is learning to channel her frustrations, becoming more like Elinor just as she has hoped.
Finally, Elinor admits that they won’t be able to produce a dish by the end of the day. Anna knows another technique to extract ore, called fire-setting. It’s a complicated and volatile process and caused the accident that killed Sam, so she’s reluctant to suggest they try it. But when she sees Merry’s disappointed face she tells Elinor, who thinks they should take the risk.
Elinor is almost unwisely altruistic, willing to take extreme risks for others, and Anna follows her lead. Elinor’s altruism derives from her strong religious convictions. Anna’s altruism stems from a certain disregard for her own safety after the death of her sons.
Anna and Merry gather wood and tinder, then drip cold water into the mine and cram boughs of wood into every crevice in the walls. Anna insists that Elinor climb out of the mine and leave her to face the final danger alone. As she lights the fire and smoke begins to fill the mine shaft, she reflects that she’d rather die of the plague than down here, alone.
Anna is an essentially communally-minded person, feeling much more comfortable in the presence of others than left on her own. Perhaps that’s why she’s so attuned to what happens around her and invested in the survival of the town.
The ore begins to fall from the walls, but large slabs of it pin Anna down. Mud fills her mouth and she knows she will die, but as she loses consciousness she is calmed by a hallucination of Jamie and Tom, their faces sharper and clearer than they have been for a long time.
Anna’s hallucinations show her strong religious faith. She immediately assumes that since she is dying, she will soon be reunited with her sons, and that their suffering will be ameliorated by this reunion.
Anna regains consciousness to find Elinor and Merry, neither of whom actually left the mine as instructed, frantically working to free her. She finally crawls out of the mine and they stumble into the village, covered in mud, to present the ore to the Barmester (a local judge), who is stunned that two women have achieved this feat. When Mompellion arrives Anna worries he will be angry, but instead he laughs and proudly embraces his wife.
In Anna’s eyes, Mompellion and Elinor continue to model an ideal marriage. Mompellion appreciates Elinor’s sterling qualities and brave actions, even when they are unconventional or improperly unfeminine.
Everyone goes to the Miner’s Tavern – even Elinor, who normally couldn’t put her gentlewoman’s reputation at risk by frequenting such a seedy locale. The miners applaud the women for their work, except for the frustrated David Burton, and the Barmester says that although a miner could nick the claim in another nine weeks, no one will be shameless enough to do so.
Here, the characters put aside two useless conventions. Elinor visits the lower-class tavern, eroding class distinctions even further. Moreover, the miners amend their code to protect Merry Wickford. This episode shows the town’s ability to adapt and even improve in response to the plague.
Anna goes to sleep nursing bruises on her face and back, but sleeps better than she has since her flirtation with the poppy oil. She’s satisfied that for once since the onset of the plague, something has “come out right.”
Anna sleeps well through the physical gratification of the poppy, but even better after successfully helping Merry. After her sons’ deaths, the only thing that brings her tranquility is a sense of being useful to those around her.