Study Guide

Illness as Metaphor

by Susan Sontag

Illness as Metaphor Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sontag wrote this polemical book in the wake of her own arduous recovery from breast cancer. Although she nowhere mentions her own illness in the book, her own experience with a life-threatening disease (as she admitted in interviews) was the inspiration for her work.

Sontag’s main concern is to refute the idea that there are psychological causes of disease. To her, disease is a physical problem that is best treated by securing the best possible medical diagnosis and therapy. She is particularly disturbed by the idea that cancer, for example, can be induced through the repressing of emotions. She likens this belief to earlier notions that tuberculosis was somehow associated with the artistic sensibility or with especially sensitive natures. In the end, the disease, scientists discovered, had nothing at all to do with personality but with a bacillus that could be treated with antibiotics.

Sontag argues that a mystique envelops diseases such as tuberculosis and cancer, which is only dispelled when the physical causes of these illnesses are revealed. In the nineteenth century, for example, a body of Romantic literature associated tuberculosis with the long-suffering artist, just as cancer in Sontag’s own time was associated with certain inhibited personality types. Sontag draws on an impressive body of literature to demonstrate how art has shaped the public’s reaction to illness.

The consequences of such Romantic thinking are that the ill person feels doomed—even feeling that he or she has in some mysterious way caused the sickness. This sense of fate works against the patient’s efforts to secure the best medical treatment. It even prevents doctors from being honest with the patients for fear that the dreaded word “cancer” will sap the patient’s desire to get well. Sontag argues vigorously against this tendency to succumb to fear and shame, urging her readers to take charge of their own medical care by aggressively seeking the best treatment.

Illness as Metaphor Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Illness as Metaphor, a groundbreaking book, grew out of Susan Sontag’s own struggle with disease. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and was given only a slim chance of surviving. Her first reaction was fear and self-blame. Perhaps her repressed personality had contributed to her sickness, she surmised. Then she began to take charge of her own therapy—not only deciding on a radical mastectomy but also on a rigorous two-and-a-half-year course of chemotherapy—against the advice of doctors who doubted the efficacy of the experimental drugs she was taking. She attributed her aggressive response to her illness a key factor in her recovery.

Sontag’s experience and her research into the history of disease convinced her to reject psychological explanations of disease. Illness as Metaphor, as she later noted, is against interpretation, in the sense that the book counsels people to treat illness as illness—not as some judgment on their character or as a product of bad behavior. To bolster her case, she presents the history of diseases such as tuberculosis, which were thought to be connected with certain kinds of artistic and sensitive personalities. When the true, physical cause of the disease was discovered, and a treatment with antibiotics was developed, such psychological explanations were abandoned, she concludes. So it will be with the many different manifestations of cancer, Sontag contends.

Illness as...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Illness as Metaphor Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Illness as Metaphor, a book of social criticism by critic and novelist Susan Sontag, is an analysis of how people make meaning of disease and how those meanings can be detrimental. There are any number of mysteries behind the discovery of a new disease—what causes it, how to treat it, who is susceptible. Until science decodes what is happening with a newly discovered disease, people will continue to use illness metaphors to make meaning of that disease.

In the book, Sontag explores three categories of metaphor: personality, punishment, and warfare. Often negative in their suggestions, these metaphors end up being harmful to the person with the disease and to society in general. So common is their use and so subtle are their implications, illness metaphors are used without considering the consequences. Illness as Metaphor seeks to change this common and subtle use of metaphors.

Sontag’s personal experience with breast cancer spurred her to write this social commentary, yet she does not mention her own conflicts with cancer metaphors, which she certainly must have experienced. Instead, to identify common metaphors, Sontag uses research, insight, and criticism; gives examples of their usage in politics, philosophy, psychology, medicine, and literature; and makes a case for their eradication.

Illness as Metaphor, which is best described as a monograph (a work that is longer than an essay, shorter than a book, and focused on one theme), is organized into nine numbered sections. The book starts with Sontag explaining why Illness as Metaphor matters. Every person gets sick, and every person will wonder why he or she is the one to get sick, no matter if that illness is a bad cold or terminal cancer. Because metaphors help one understand the world, one is tempted to see illness metaphorically, as a punishment, a sign, or a war raging in one’s body, for example. Sontag explains, however, that these negative metaphors affect how a person approaches treatment. In addition, certain metaphors stigmatize the newly diagnosed person.

Historical research figures early in the book. Sontag shows that with many diseases came the misconception that they were morally contagious—that the sufferer committed a social transgression, was afflicted, and others of the same moral failings would contract the disease. This same misconception accompanied, for example, Europe’s bubonic plague in the Middle Ages before science and medicine had knowledge of germs (pathogens), bacteria, or hereditary conditions. Sontag makes the case that it is still common to attach a moral failing to the onset of disease, making moral failing (a personality metaphor) one of the most devastating metaphors, especially for people diagnosed with cancer.

To prove her point about cancer and its metaphors, Sontag makes a parallel argument about metaphors and...

(The entire section is 1187 words.)