Masterpieces of Women's Literature Illness as Metaphor Analysis

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Of the myths that surround cancer and tuberculosis, one of the most dramatic is the perception of them both as diseases of passion. The high fever of the tuberculosis patient was seen as a symptom of burning passion, and the disease itself becomes “a variant of the disease of love,” a claim Sontag supports with quotations from John Keats and Thomas Mann. Tuberculosis has also been treated in literature as a consequence of sexual frustration, as in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove (1902) when Milly Theale’s doctor suggests that a love affair will help her struggle with the disease. In one of Ivan Turgenev’s novels, Nakanune (1860; On the Eve, 1871), the exiled hero, frustrated that he cannot return to Bulgaria, succumbs to his misery in a hotel room in Venice and dies after contracting tuberculosis.

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Whereas James’s and Turgenev’s characters suffered from illness brought on by frustration, the hero of André Gide’s novel L’Immoraliste (1902; The Immoralist, 1930) comes down with tuberculosis from repressing his homosexuality and then recovers upon accepting himself. Sontag says that today Gide’s Michel would get cancer instead, following a common modern myth that the disease is rooted in sexual repression and an inability to vent one’s emotions. The main source of this particularly pernicious myth—pernicious in that it puts the blame for the disease on the victim, who is perceived as failing to respond to life fully—is Reich, Sontag says. Reich was a disciple of Sigmund Freud who fell out of favor with the master and in his Maine laboratory invented the absurd orgone box, which he claimed trapped sexual energy that would cure many ailments brought on by repression.

Sontag adeptly finds many examples of her thesis in art and literature: Little Eva’s peaceful death from tuberculosis in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the sudden wasting away of Michael Furey in James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” and the “emaciated” tubercular young women in the paintings of Edvard Munch. Sontag summarizes the complexity of this disease of sensitive, “interesting” people: “Above all, it was a way of affirming the value of being more conscious, more complex psychologically. Health becomes banal, even vulgar.” In more recent years, Sontag says, mental illness has replaced tuberculosis as “the index of a superior sensibility.”

Christianity encouraged a moral view of disease, Sontag says, and in the later book AIDS and Its Metaphors she cites the crude charges by Jerry Falwell and others that AIDS is God’s punishment of homosexuals and drug users. She points out that in the seventeenth century, preacher Cotton Mather described syphilis as a curse “which the Just Judgment of God has reserved for our...

(The entire section contains 703 words.)

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Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Illness as Metaphor Analysis


Critical Context