Anna reflects on the prospect of slipping into sin, saying that the famous “Fall” of Adam and Eve must have begun with one wrong step, like falling down a hill. She is worried about her own actions; after stealing the vial of poppy oil, she felt remorse and meant to return it, but instead succumbed to the temptation to try a dose and forget her griefs. She has pleasant, hallucinatory dreams in which she sees her children playing, and when she wakes up her mind feels numb and serene.
Although Anna has funneled her grief into action, her drug use makes it apparent that she’s suffering seriously from the death of her sons. This is completely justified, but she feels a lot of guilt, describing herself as a “sinner” deserving of punishment for taking the poppy, rather than trying to evaluate her own actions.
Leaving her house for the day, Anna sees a neighbor’s child, Sally Maston, standing in the doorway and obviously stricken with the plague. When Anna enters the house, she finds that Sally’s mother is long dead and her father is delirious. It turns out that many whole families have become sick in one day, and Anna and Elinor travel between houses nursing them, while Mompellion performs rites over the dead. One of the afflicted is Anna’s friend Lib, to whom she hasn’t spoken since Lib was involved in Anys’ murder. Anna hurries to her house, hoping to reconcile, but Lib dies before she arrives. By nightfall, Sally Maston, her parents, and her baby sister have all died.
As the plague gathers steam, terrible sights, like dying children uncared for by anyone, start to become routine for Anna. Although they can’t save anyone, Anna and the Mompellions try to give the afflicted a calm and peaceful death, in keeping with religious and social rituals from before the plague. However, Anna’s inability to reconcile with Lib before she dies shows that it’s impossible to retain a sense of normalcy completely in this time of catastrophe.
That night, instead of doing her chores or making dinner, Anna drinks the rest of the poppy oil and spends the night in blissful oblivion. When she wakes up, she feels unusually well-rested, but she realizes she has no more poppy left and no means of securing more. She decides to visit the Gowdies’ abandoned cottage to see if she can find some poppy herb.
Although in public she’s busy and useful, privately Anna is on the verge of succumbing to addiction. She’s at a pivotal point in her life, and has to decide if she will find a new of coping or continue to seek oblivion from her grief in her use of this drug.
On her way, Anna passes untended farm fields whose owners have fallen to the plague. All the village harvest customs have been disrupted by the plague – the church bells are supposed to ring for three weeks before farmers bring the harvest in, but now the bells only ring to announce deaths. Anna notices that the blacksmith’s forge, which should be pouring out smoke, is cold and silent; when she goes into the blacksmith’s cottage, which smells of rotten apples, she finds Kate Talbot, heavily pregnant, nursing her husband, Richard. Richard has demanded that she cauterize his plague sores with a burning iron, but now the wound has become infected, and Anna sees immediately that he will die of “rot” if not of the plague.
Anna’s descriptions of the eerily untended landscape show how community routines and norms are beginning to erode. The smell of rotting apples which she notices in the Talbot cottage reinforces this sense of decay. The plague’s ravages are most jarring and disturbing when they’re juxtaposed with images of erstwhile plenty, like the planted fields and the blacksmith’s forge.
Anna begins to clean the cottage and haul wood for a fire. She discovers that Kate has laid a strange charm, a piece of paper reading “Abracadabra,” over Richard’s wound. She scolds Kate for believing in such “follies,” which were seen as signs of witchcraft and consorting with demonic forces. Kate says that since prayers to God are of no avail, she had no choice but to appeal to the Devil. She reveals that she has bought the charm from a mysterious entity she believes to be the ghost of Anys Gowdie. Anna is unconvinced, telling Kate that it’s probably a hoax perpetrated by some greedy villager.
The villagers, once convinced that the plague was caused by God, are no longer so sure. Kate’s charm shows that religion no longer provides adequate moral or spiritual support for the people. Kate doesn’t disavow God, but she makes an equivalency between blatant superstition, which Anna knows to be nonsense, and religious faith, the value of which she is uncertain about. The similarities between religion and superstition will destabilize Anna’s religious belief as the novel continues.
Anna proceeds through snow drifts to the Gowdie cottage. She sees the silhouette of a person by the fire and, notwithstanding her disdain of superstition, instantly believes it’s the ghost of Anys Gowdie, until the figure lights a match and reveals herself as Elinor. Anna wonders how she will justify her visit to the cottage, but Elinor assumes that they both had the same idea, to search the cottage for any clues as to what herbs and remedies might be helpful in fighting the plague. She eagerly enlists Anna’s help in sorting and naming the plants, and Anna feels ashamed for seeking out drugs for herself while Elinor is so committed to tending to others.
While Kate turns to Anys’s supposed witchcraft for help, Anna and Elinor will harness the real power of her science to fight the plague. Forthright and independent, Anys represented powerful womanhood, and the fact that Anna and Elinor’s scientific exploration begins in her garden reinforces the sense that healing through scientific medicine is, at this time, a female field and a method by which women can obtain power.
Elinor insists that, since they are working together as equals, Anna call her by her Christian name, rather than addressing her formally as Mrs. Mompellion. Moreover, she knows why Anna came to the cottage, having noticed that the poppy was missing. She doesn’t scold Anna but points out that while opiates like poppy give the relief of numbness, they will eventually make Anna forget the memories of her children which are now all she has left of them.
Elinor continues to disavow class distinctions, as her friendship with Anna is defined by its equality and the fact that it exists outside of restrictive social norms. Moreover, her calm reaction to the theft of the poppy shows that she doesn’t have a dogmatic or punitive view of justice. By encouraging Anna to evaluate the situation and decide for herself, she demonstrates a more flexible method of mediation.
Elinor goes on to confess that she herself was once addicted to poppy. She began using the poppy during a painful episode during her adolescence, when she became pregnant out of wedlock. She says that while she hates to relive those memories, because she and Anna are undertaking an important and dangerous role of doctors, she wants Anna to truly “know” her.
Elinor and Anna are both restrained characters, so this confession is an act of openness that draws them even closer together. In Elinor’s eyes, their scientific endeavor is inextricably linked with their blossoming bond as women; they cannot be doctors together without being women and friends.
Elinor grew up the beloved child of a rich widower in Derbyshire, sheltered from any knowledge of the world by her protective father and older brother. When she was fourteen, her twenty-year-old neighbor, Charles, began courting her, and although her father disapproved of the man’s character and believed Elinor too young for romance, Elinor continued the relationship clandestinely and eventually eloped with her suitor.
Elinor grew up much richer than she lets on, making her disregard for class distinctions even more notable. Moreover, although she’s demure and religious now, her early elopement aligns her with Anna and Anys, women whose sexuality is seen as being too strong and unruly by their repressive societies.
The lovers went to London, where it was possible to marry without parental consent. However, Charles kept putting off the wedding and even convinced Elinor to sleep with him, although premarital sex was a grave sin, especially for women. Eventually, Elinor realized that he never planned to marry her at all; but she was so infatuated she didn’t care, until one day he abandoned her.
Elinor’s romantic disaster underscores the perils of romance for women. Elinor was so uneducated and ignorant of men that she couldn’t discern Charles’s true character or intentions. On top of that, the social consequences for extramarital sex are much higher for her than for him.
Elinor’s father and brother loved her despite her transgressions and rescued her as soon as she wrote to him. But when she arrived home, she found she was with child and, in desperation to hide her shame and put an end to an episode that had been so painful, she performed an abortion with a fire iron that almost killed her. Thanks to the care of a good physician, she survived, but her womb is “a mass of scars” and she will never be able to have children.
Elinor’s tragic story links female sexuality with shame, moral ruin, and dangerous pregnancies, demonstrating that sex is likely to lead to disaster for any woman who embraces it outside the confines of marriage. However, Anna’s later experiences will suggest much more positive possibilities for female sexuality and sex outside marriage.
The doctors medicated Elinor with poppy, first to relieve her pain and then to numb her emotional distress. Elinor was entranced by the “empty dreams” of the poppy and says she might be addicted today if she hadn’t met Michael Mompellion.
Anna and Elinor are alike in that they both flirted with addiction after an emotional trauma. However, while Mompellion rescues Elinor from the poppy, Anna rescues herself (with Elinor’s help) by finding purpose as a healer.
Elinor goes on to explain Mompellion’s backstory, which is also much different than Anna imagined it. Rather than being the son of a well-off family of clergy, Mompellion was the son of a lowly curate who became involved in the English Civil War, fighting on behalf of the Parliamentarians. During the second phase of the war, when the Cavaliers were winning, he was killed. Even though he was still a child, to support his family Michael began working for the steward at Elinor’s family estate. He grew up learning to farm, care for horses, and run a large aristocratic estate. Due to his intelligence, Elinor’s father took an interest in him and sent him to school and eventually to Cambridge.
Mompellion is of uncertain class background. He had an educated father, but grew up poor and struggling. He moves in sophisticated social circles, but was trained as a farmhand. His patchwork background explains his progressivism and his kindness to people like Anna, who are far below him on the social ladder.
When Mompellion returned from Cambridge he befriended the fragile Elinor, recovering from her encounter with unrequited love and her disastrous pregnancy. He took her to visit her tenants’ cottages, teaching her about the struggles and complexities of common life. He also instructed her spiritually, teaching her that it’s useless to regret the sins of the past and that God allows even the greatest sinners to atone for their deeds. When Mompellion became a priest, they married. It was an unusually unequal match, given Elinor’s higher social and economic position. However, given the stains on her sexual purity and her inability to have children, Elinor believes it is Mompellion who has “stooped” to marry her.
At this point, the Mompellions’ marriage is an example of an ideal relationship between men and women. Unlike Colonel Bradford, who has complete power over his wife and abuses it, both Elinor and Mompellion have “compromised” socially in their marriage. Moreover, they are intellectual equals who developed a spiritual bond prior to getting married, unlike Elinor’s unpremeditated teenage elopement. To Anna, Elinor’s story represents the possibility of living with a man within social norms but on terms of relative equality. Later, however, she will make a discovery that causes her to see their relationship differently.
Anna reflects on how little she knew about Elinor and Mompellion before this. Although she thought she had insight into their characters, many of her judgments were based on assumptions about their class and social status. Now, she understands the origins of Mompellion’s egalitarianism and Elinor’s refusal to judge others.
Although she’s the novel’s most insightful character, even Anna makes judgments based on the conventions under which she has always lived. Now, she’s learning how inadequate these social conventions are to explain most of life’s complexities.
Elinor explains her ideas about how best to combat the plague. On a map of Eyam, she marks out the names and dwellings of everyone who has died of the plague. The map makes it clear that contagion spread like a “starburst” from Anna’s cottage, where the infected cloth was stored, outward to surrounding houses. Elinor points out that the plague affects children more than adults or old people, and surmises that old people survive because they are “veterans…in the war against disease” – in other words, they have developed immunity over a lifetime of exposure to illness. Accordingly, instead of trying to cure the sick, which as proved impossible (only one person, Margaret Blackwell, has survived), they must try to strengthen the children enough to prevent them from catching the plague.
Without formal education or medical training, Elinor devises a surprisingly scientific approach to understanding the plague. While her conclusions may seem obvious to the modern reader, they contrast sharply with the villagers’ belief that scribbled charms might invoke the Devil’s assistance, or the Oxford doctor’s ridiculous gift of a dried toad. She’s the first person to think tactically about fighting the plague as a community, rather than haphazardly treating individual cases as they crop up.
Anna and Elinor spend the day sorting through the Gowdies’ herbs, trying to match them to descriptions in medical books from the rectory. They rely on a text by Avicenna, a famous Muslim doctor and philosopher. They assemble an arsenal of herbs: nettle for strong blood, starwort to help longs, silverweed to cool a fever.
Elinor’s science is an alternative to the inadequacies of the respected male medical establishment. Her approach draws on wisdom from people normally in the margins – women like the Gowdies and Muslims like Avicenna. The novel suggests that science is inherently opposed to the social and class distinctions promoted by the establishment, and inherently aligned with progressivism and tolerance.
Before leaving the cottage, Elinor hands Anna the small supply of poppy herbs and asks what should be done with them. Anna argues weakly that they might be useful to soothe pain in the dying, but Elinor points out that they only have enough for a few doses, and would have to decide who “deserves” the pain relief most. Anna knows that if they keep the poppy, she will end up using it herself; in fact, she can barely restrain herself from licking the sap as it drips onto her hand. However, she also knows that if she succumbs to “selfish oblivion” she won’t be of any use fighting the plague. She throws the poppy onto the fire.
Looking at the poppy, Anna and Elinor are faced with a moral dilemma. Usually, the community adjudicates moral dilemmas through inflexible religious doctrine or harsh punishments. However, Elinor operates by talking through the situation and arriving at consensus. Her method of judgment and action is based on understanding and leaves all parties satisfied after the final decision.
As the walk home, Anna resolves to work towards becoming “the woman that Elinor wished me to be.” However, in the back of her mind she notes that if all else fails, she knows where to look in the Gowdie garden for new poppy shoots in the spring.
Anna’s growing devotion to Elinor leads her to emulate her friend. Their strong friendship as women is character-defining for Anna, more than any other relationship in the novel.