While making tea in the rectory, Anna begins crying for her dead father and sons. She realizes she hasn’t had enough time or space to mourn Jamie and Tom, and that her grief is bottled up inside her. Elinor finds her and makes her sit down, stroking her hair and comforting her.
Just as Elinor revealed her secret sorrows to Anna, Anna turns to Elinor with her own grief. Their intense friendship is strengthened by a thorough understanding of each other’s character, which Anna doesn’t achieve with anyone else in the novel.
Anna tells Elinor of the childhood traumas that molded Joss’s unscrupulous character. As a child he was conscripted into the navy, where he was raped by the older men and whipped cruelly by the boatswain. After surviving one apprenticeship at sea he made his way to land but was captured again by a press gang. Even after he finally escaped and moved inland, he feared being conscripted again.
By telling Elinor about her father, Anna realizes that he was violent to her because of his own violent childhood. A cycle of violent punishment, deserved or not, only serves to perpetuate violence. Now Anna knows that it was Josiah’s circumstances, rather than innate character flaws, that were responsible for her awful childhood.
Telling Elinor about Joss’s life and realizing how much he has suffered makes Anna feel that her mind has been “rinsed” clean. She feels that she’s finally achieved a balance between “disgust” and “understanding” for him, between her guilt over his death and her resentment of her brutal childhood.
This is one of the few episodes in which a wrongdoing is satisfactorily resolved. Anna achieves a sense of justice not by blaming a criminal or inflicting punishment, but by trying to think through all sides of this issue. Rejecting the Puritan morality of her childhood, she understands that neither party is entirely right or wrong.
Elinor reflects Joss must have followed the quarantine because he feared conscription if he fled toward the coast, and Anna says that she thinks Aphra convinced her husband that she had supernatural “chants or charms” to ward off the plague. Aphra isn’t alone in her superstitions; Elinor produces a charm she found in Margaret Livesedge’s house, which Margaret said she obtained from the ghost of Anys Gowdie. Elinor confers with Mompellion, who has seen other villagers clinging to the fake charms. In fact, Mompellion has just come from the Mowbray cottage, where Lottie Mowbray confessed that “the ghost of Anys Gowdie” told her to rub her baby on a bramble hedge to prevent him from catching plague. Anna brings an herbal salve to the Mowbrays and finds them boiling the baby’s urine, another charm suggested by the “ghost.” She sternly instructs them to put an end to these superstitions and pray to God.
More and more people are succumbing to the temptation of superstition. While it’s obvious to Anna and Elinor that no one can cure the plague by soliciting the Devil’s help, it’s clear to the reader that Mompellion can’t do much with his religious teachings besides comfort the dying. The real contrast to superstition is Anna and Elinor’s science—the only thing that can tangibly help those afflicted with the plague.
As Anna walks home she begins to wonder why everyone, from Mompellion to the Mowbrays, attributes the plague to a divine entity, whether it’s a test from God or the work of the Devil. Villagers are encouraged to embrace religious explanations as certain truth and scorn pagan “charms” as superstition. However, the plague might be “simply a thing in Nature,” rather than part of a supernatural scheme.
Here, Anna makes an equivalency between Mompellion’s accepted religious beliefs and the Mowbrays’ obviously spurious superstitions, showing radical (and blasphemous) doubts about the religion with which she grew up. In doing so, she prioritizes the workings of “nature” (or sicence) over religious theories.
Anna stubs her toe on a rock, which makes her think about God’s agency in the world. She doesn’t believe that God caused something as simple as a hurt foot; she wonders how one should logically decide which events are large enough to be God’s work, and which are small enough to be decided by chance.
Anna questions the role of God in human suffering. The villagers’ belief that the plague originated with God has been both comforting (since it explains horrible events) and disturbing (since it suggests an angry and vengeful deity). By suggesting that God might not be responsible at all, Anna moves away from relying on divine assistance and worrying about divine anger.
Ultimately, Anna thinks it’s best not to spend too much time on these intractable questions. Rather, they should work on the plague as a purely earthly problem, “as a farmer might toil to rid his field of unwanted tare.” Approaching the plague rationally is the most effective way to fight it.
As May arrives, the land blossoms into a beautiful spring. Anna watches apple trees flower and reflects that these things used to make her happy. Her flock of sheep gives birth to lambs, and she’s surprised that they can be so happy and so ignorant of the human catastrophes around them.
The lambing is a reminder of last spring, when Anna and Jamie helped the flock give birth. Natural events remain unchanged despite human suffering, and this suggests that nature is an irrational entity not controlled by any divine presence or influenced by human events.
By the middle of June, as many villagers have died as are alive. As she walks through the eerie streets, Anna feels “the press of their ghosts” oppressing her. The village now lacks skilled workers since the farrier, malter, carpenter, mason, and tailor are all dead, along with scores of others. Most of the fields go unplowed and unprepared for planting.
Other problems than the plague threaten the community. Without laborers or skilled workers, Eyam won’t be able to grow food or construct the various tools it needs. This underscores the fact that community survival is dependent on cooperation and group effort.
Different villagers cope with the fear in different ways. Andrew Merrick builds a hut in total isolation and the others leave him food at a safe distance. Jane Martin, Anna’s former babysitter who looked down on her in Puritan scorn, turns to alcohol and prostitution to forget the grief of losing her entire family.
Warped by the plague, Eyam is becoming unrecognizable as its former self and people are behaving in ways that would never have been accepted before. Jane’s abrupt descent into drunkenness shows that grief and isolation can destroy even those whom the plague spares, and change the face of a society permanently.
John and Urith Gordon stop coming to services at Cucklett Delf, and Anna notices that Urith Gordon, always cowed and afraid of her husband, is thinner and quieter than usual. One evening at the well, Anna sees John Gordon naked to the waist and leaning on a cane, flagellating himself with a handmade scourge and praying as he walks. Anna alerts Mompellion, who says he has feared the spread of flagellation, an extreme practice that often gained popularity in cities during times of crisis. Elinor explains that flagellants believe they can satisfy God’s wrath by “grievous self-punishment.” Mompellion adds that they are dangerous to community order, leading to confusion and the formation of mobs who seek to identify and kill scapegoats, like Jews or witches.
Normally, extreme practices like flagellation aren’t tolerated in Eyam. Mompellion knows it’s essential that the community keep to this convention in order to stay sane. This episode suggests that it is norms and mores that keep a society functioning well, rather than inherent human virtues. Additionally, while flagellation is disturbing and unhealthy, it’s not so different from Mompellion’s rationalization of the plague, since both mindsets attribute the epidemic to God. Anna’s doubting of the flagellants will lead her to question traditional religious explanations as well.
Mompellion and Anna set out to confront the Gordons. On their way they come across an inebriated couple having sex in the road, and Anna recognizes Jane Martin with her dress pushed over her head. Mompellion coolly dismisses the young man, Albion Samweys, but he excoriates Jane, shouting at her and condemning her as a sinner. Shocked at this unequal treatment, especially since Jane is too disoriented to understand what’s going on, Anna begs that Mompellion be lenient. Mompellion says that Anna forgets her place by contradicting him, but he relents and they convey Jane to her cottage before setting off again. Mompellion says that they should try to forget this incident, and asks that Anna not mention his outburst to Elinor.
Usually Mompellion is flexible about breaches in social convention, and deeply compassionate to parishioners who have sinned; here, he departs sharply from that progressivism and takes a regressive attitude toward Jane’s sexual transgression. His outburst suggests that, despite his liberal tendencies, there’s something about unleashed female sexuality that is deeply frightening and disturbing to Mompelllion.
Arriving at the Gordon cottage Anna and Mompellion find every wall covered in crosses and Urith starving under the fast John imposes. Urith says her husband has learned about flagellating in a tract from London and now believes that the only way to end the plague is for everyone in the village to publicly confess all their sins. Besides fasting, he has burned all their furniture and bedding, as well as his clothes, although Urith refuses to go about half-naked. Now he is in the habit of denying himself sleep and spending the nights scourging himself near the Edge, a cliff on the moors. Mompellion searches for John on the Edge and the surrounding moors, but can’t find him. A week later Brand sees Gordon’s body at the bottom of the Edge; he has fallen off the cliff and died.
John has destroyed his last shreds of peace and comfort in an attempt to placate an angry God, which seems ridiculous to the pragmatic Anna. However, the crosses in his cottage are a reminder that his beliefs aren’t a huge departure from religious orthodoxy. In attributing all worldly events to divine pleasure or anger, both organized religion and unsanctioned sects can incite unwise behavior.
The next Sunday, Mompellion preaches about John, saying that he “sought to please God even as he embraced conduct unpleasing to God.” However, Urith dies of the plague a week later. While she probably caught the plague from clothes and furniture other villagers gave her, many interpret this as evidence that John had been doing the right thing, and kept them safe while he was live. Martin Miller and Randoll Daniel adopt John’s behavior, parading around in sackcloth and scourging themselves. Mompellion chastises himself, feeling that his parishioners turn to flagellating because he hasn’t provided adequate spiritual guidance. He seeks guidance from his friend Mr. Holbroke, rector of the neighboring town; the two men stand at safe distances of the boundary line and shout to each other.
Mompellion claims to know what behavior is pleasing to God and what is unfounded superstition, but he only comes to these conclusions based on teachings from other members of his own religious sect. Clearly, his certainty in his own beliefs is no longer adequate in the face of the ongoing plague. Rather than realizing that Mompellion actually has much in common with the flagellants, people turn to superstition as an alternative to religion.
Elinor also does much to soothe Mompellion, telling him he always does what is best for the village. One night, Anna stumbles upon them in a moment of intimacy; Elinor is asleep in a chair while Mompellion stands, leaning over and watching her. Anna has never seen a couple behave so tenderly toward each other. She feels jealous of Mompellion because she wants a “greater share” of Elinor’s love for herself. She’s also jealous of Elinor, who seems to have an ideal marriage and someone to comfort her at night while Anna has to return to “a cold an empty bed.” In a fit of anger, she smashes the supper dishes in the kitchen.
Growing close to both Mompellion and Elinor, Anna becomes an uncomfortable third wheel in their marriage. But rather than only being jealous of Elinor’s relationship, she is envious of Elinor’s attention and love as well. For Anna, the desire for female intimacy and friendship is as strong, if not stronger, than her desire for a romantic relationship.