Disease and Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Disease and Literature

The subject of disease—whether as a metaphor for spiritual corruption manifested in the body or as symbol of social ills—is one of the most prevalent in modern literature. While the allegorical presence of sickness was observed by the ancient Greek dramatists and exploited by medieval writers, the topic was elevated to a much greater prominence by the Romantics and their successors. In France, the Symbolist and Decadent movements embraced disease, especially mental illness, as part of the artist's natural state. Arthur Rimbaud, for example, wrote that the visionary poet must undergo a thorough derangement of the senses in order to achieve his ends. In Russia, Fyodor Dostoevsky pioneered the modern conception of the anti-hero, a criminal or otherwise marginal figure, whose malaise of the brain was his defining characteristic. With the Modernists came a new, almost clinical, approach to disease in literature. In 1930, Virginia Woolf wrote, "Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed … it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature." Thomas Mann explored this theme in relation to the individual in such works as Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain, and also broadened the scope of the disease metaphor, using it to represent the ills of modern European society. This symbolism was later adopted by such writers as Albert Camus, whose novel The Plague makes disease emblematic of the wholesale corruption of twentieth-century Europe in the midst of the second World War. Others—notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in his Cancer Ward delved into the personal aspects of an illness he himself had suffered and overcome—approached the topic on its most basic, visceral level as well as in its psychological and spiritual contexts. In more recent years the spread of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) to epidemic proportions has opened a new chapter in the literature of disease, as writers have begun to confront an illness that daily becomes more of an inescapable part of ordinary life.