The Plague, Anna says, is especially cruel in that it inflicts gratuitous grief, letting “its blows fall and fall again upon raw sorrow.” She compares its ravages to the repeated and malicious whippings her father experienced as a conscript sailor. She has barely buried Tom when Jamie catches the fever, and since he’s an older child he suffers much more intensely.
The first thing Anna notes about the plague is her inability to understand it. Since the villagers believe that all suffering is part of a divine plan, Anna expects to be able to justify the plague in some way, but as the epidemic causes more and more senseless damage, she will have trouble believing it to be the work of God or meaningful in any way.
Elinor helps Anna nurse Jamie. She brings letters from Mompellion’s colleagues at Oxford, doctors who recommend complex poultices that do nothing to help Jamie’s growing sores. One particularly well-known doctor sends a talisman containing a dried toad, but neither woman has any confidence in its efficacy. Anys brings a herbal salve that quiets him and eases his pain. However, Anys realizes that he has no chance of survival, telling Anna that her “arms will not be empty forever.”
Anna has at her disposal remedies from both the respected medical establishment and the widely denigrated herbal healers, but it’s Anys’ tonic which has the positive effect. Notably, the women can tell immediately that the talismans sent by famed doctors are worse than useless. This demonstrates their scientific acumen and resistance to superstition. It also shows that they’re on their own fighting the plague, and can’t expect much wisdom from the institutions others trust.
After five days, Jamie dies, attended by Anna and both the Mompellions. He is buried alongside a growing number of plague victims. In a fog of grief, Anna spends most of her time wandering through the churchyard, wondering why her tenant, her children, and many of her neighbors have perished while she has been spared. As she looks at stone crosses that date back to the arrival of Christianity in Britain, she reflects that there seems to be no significance to these deaths and that God seems to desire human suffering.
Anna’s idea of God as parental and desiring of human betterment is already challenged by the plague’s caprices. Meanwhile, her focus on the early Christian monuments shows an implicit awareness that religious customs are transient and depend on sociopolitical circumstances, rather than an eternal bedrock on which to safely base opinions and action.
One evening three weeks after Jamie’s death, Anna is retrieving an errant sheep from the moors when she comes across an inebriated and hysterical mob of villagers, including her friend Lib and neighbor Mary. The mob is attacking Mem Gowdie, accusing her of witchcraft and, convinced that her blood can cure the plague, smearing it on the bodies of their sick relatives. Anna tries to defend Mem, pointing out that no one has seen her do any suspect, but the mob is impervious to logic. Instead, they decide to dunk Mem in the flooded mine; common superstition stated that if a witch was dunked, she would float. In the chaos, Anna falls on the ground and faints.
The mob shows how quickly community customs have failed in the face of the plague’s ravages, and it also shows how quickly violence fills the vacuum when customs come to seem inadequate. Throughout the novel, superstition will be linked with panic and violence, as it is here, but superstition will also prove more attractive than rationality, as it does when Anna’s attempt to reason with the mob falls on deaf ears.
When Anna wakes up, Mem is sinking, which means she is “innocent” but likely to drown. No one is brave enough to jump in and rescue her until Anys arrives with a rope and hauls her aunt out of the pond. Anys performs a primitive form of CPR to revive Mem, but the crowd views this as evidence that she has “raised the dead” and is therefore the witch culpable for the plague. When Anna tries to defend Anys, Lib points out that Anna herself said Anys “consorted with” George, the first plague victim. The mob screams that Anys is a “fornicator” and attacks her, knocking Anna down in the process.
The community accepts harmful superstitions (like the practice of “dunking”) as rational fact while denouncing helpful science (like CPR) as the work of the devil. Later, this tendency will hinder efforts to fight the plague scientifically. Moreover, when Anys divulged her relationship with George to Anna, it was a moment that highlighted female power and independence—but when such information is publicly known, it imperils her life, showing how sexuality can both liberate and threaten women.
The mob puts a noose around Anys’ neck, but before they hang her she yells that she is in fact “the Devil’s creature.” She says that she has slept with the Devil, that she has seen all the other women do so as well, and that he is much more sexually satisfying than any of their husbands. The men hang her.
More than anyone else, Anys understands the dysfunctional roots of the community’s sexual mores. She knows that men repress female sexuality because they see it as potentially powerful, threatening to undermine their control over the women in their lives. By playing on those fears, Anys attempts to create a distraction that will allow her to escape, but ultimately this effort to subvert male power structures backfires.
Warned by Mary, Mompellion arrives and excoriates the villagers for killing Anys. When they argue that she confessed to witchcraft, he says that she was just trying to sow dissent among the mob in order to save her life. Mompellion says that there is enough suffering and death in the town without people inciting the wrath of God with further misdeeds. Everyone begins crying and praying for God’s forgiveness.
Mompellion immediately dispels claims that Anys is a witch, understanding that her “confession” was a desperate ploy to save her life. Here, he appears remarkably progressive, resistant to superstition and to hysteria about female sexuality.