Style and Technique

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Sontag allows the portrait of an unnamed man and the responses of his friends to his disease to filter gradually through the many voices of her story. No voice is dominant. The man is rarely heard speaking in his own voice, although his plight is discussed in nearly every sentence of the story. Consequently, the blending and clashing of voices reveals a society in argument with itself, testing ways of responding to AIDS, advancing, then rejecting, certain attitudes.

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As in real conversation, voices overlap one another so that one statement is interrupted by another, and one speaker merges into another:

He seemed optimistic, Kate thought, his appetite was good, and what he said, Orson reported, was that he agreed when Stephen advised him that the main thing was to keep in shape, he was a fighter, right, he wouldn’t be who he was if he weren’t, and was he ready for the big fight, Stephen asked rhetorically (as Max told it to Donny), and he said you bet.

In this example, the views of several friends are heard, and dialogue is recapitulated in what Max tells Donny. Sentences contain speeches within speeches, a complex layering of social and psychological observation that is emphasized by long sentences that continually switch speakers, so that a community of friends and points of view is expressed sentence by sentence.

It is the rhythm of these voices, of the ups and downs in their moods, of the phases people go through in responding to the disease, that is one of the most impressive accomplishments of Sontag’s technique. She presents the tragedy of one man, yet from the first to the last sentence the story is about society’s tragedy as well. The speakers retain their individuality, yet they also become a chorus, almost like one in a Greek tragedy. They do not speak the same thoughts at once, but the syntax of the sentences makes them seem bound to one another—as enclosed by their community of feeling as the clauses in Sontag’s sentences are enclosed by commas. The speaker’s thought at the beginning of a sentence is carried on, refuted, modified, or added to by speakers in later parts of the sentence. The sentence as a grammatical unit links speakers to one another. Whatever their attitudes toward the disease, they cannot escape the thought of it. Thinking of it is, as one of them says, the way they live now.

Historical Context

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Gay Liberation in the 1970s
The story takes place in the mid-1980s, after AIDS had begun to decimate the gay population of Manhattan and other large urban centers. The lifestyle referred to in the title of the story stands in implicit contrast to ‘‘the way we used to live’’ before the AIDS epidemic. Sontag is careful to include characters of every sexual orientation, but gay history is a particularly pertinent context for her story.

In 1969, the Stonewall riots occurred to protest the police harassment of a bar in the New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Many gay men and women were inspired by the solidarity exhibited at the uprising, and several historians point to that moment as a defining one in the burgeoning gay rights movement.

The free, often promiscuous sexual attitudes of gay liberation were in some ways an outgrowth of the more widespread and mainstream sexual revolution of the 1960s, which resulted from women's access to abortion and birth control. Yet sexual freedom had special meaning to homosexuals, who, before their "liberation,'' had lived either without a community or in a highly secretive one, and who often and regarded their own sexuality as a sickness, sin, or shame. (It was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.)

After Stonewall brought pride and attention to the homosexual community, gay men regarded promiscuity as a celebration of the unhampered male libido. While there were always people who saw this behavior as sordid and immoral, those who participated in the lifestyle viewed it as the reflection of a positive, optimistic, and even innocent time.

AIDS in the 1980s
In 1981 reports of a mysterious and deadly disease affecting homosexual men first hit the mainstream press. By 1983 it was acknowledged as an epidemic. That year the Assistant Secretary of Health announced that AIDS was the country's number one health priority. Haitians, hemophiliacs, and intravenous drug users were also identified as populations at high risk for AIDS, but it was still widely perceived as a "gay disease." There was public hysteria and a backlash against gay people in the face of false reports that casual contact might spread AIDS. This is the attitude Yvonne refers to when she calls the man in the story with AIDS "fortunate" because "no one's afraid to hug him or kiss him lightly on the mouth."

There was no medical explanation for the disease and no clear understanding of how it was spread until 1984, when French and American teams of doctors simultaneously discovered Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) as the most likely cause of AIDS. As it became clear that AIDS was spread by intimate sexual contact or blood, there was further hostility and moral judgment directed toward gay culture. The gay community itself responded with grief, shock, and denial.

Because sexual freedom was so closely associated with political liberation for this generation of gay men, many initially refused to change their risky behaviors. In the story Kate remembers asking the central character if he is being "careful, honey, you know what I mean,'' one night at a disco before he gets sick. He responds by saying, "No, I'm not, listen, I can't, I just can't, sex is too important to me." Safe sex guidelines were not initially effective, but as the AIDS crisis wore on, and gay men became more involved in organized AIDS prevention, safe sex became a community standard.

In the early and mid-1980s AIDS was concentrated in a few urban gay communities, with New York and San Francisco particularly hard hit. In 1984 more than a third of all reported cases were in New York City. By 1987, one in 25 gay men in Greenwich Village had AIDS. Shops in that neighborhood started to close earlier and pedestrian traffic was down forty percent. The disease had profoundly transformed what once had been the wild and thriving center of gay liberation.

Literary Style

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Point of View
The story's point of view is the most striking stylistic element of Sontag's story. It is told in the third person, through the voices of a large group of friends as they share information about a friend who has AIDS. No one character's perspective dominates the narration and the large number of characters creates a kaleidoscope effect. Within a single sentence, the perspective often shifts several times. The characters frequently disagree with each other and one of them, Quentin, objects to the constant references to the group as "we."

However, the experience forges a collective identity. The many individual voices that make up the group create a constantly shifting point of view, but the collective identity that they share lends the multiple points of view a certain unity. The fact that the friends are speaking to each other is more important than which particular friend is talking to another.

The story is narrated almost entirely through dialogue, with nearly all information expressed through the spoken words of the characters to one another. Sontag's use of dialogue is unusual not only because it plays such a large role in her telling of the story, but because it is presented in an idiosyncratic format, which means that she does not use the conventional paragraph breaks and quotation marks to distinguish between different speakers. Instead, she runs the dialogue of different speakers together, often using extremely long sentences to capture the flow of conversation. The very first sentence runs eleven lines and includes the comments of four different people. This has the effect of melding the identities of the different speakers and suggests the merging of their identities, as well as the urgency of their communication with each other.

In ‘‘The Way We Live Now’’ Sontag uses language, for the most part, in a realistic way. The conversations that make up the narration mimic the natural intonations and patterns of speech. The story represents a real situation and offers concrete historical details.

However, it can also be viewed as an allegory, where the characters and events represent larger ideas about the AIDS crisis. The story's symbolic quality is most clearly illustrated in Sontag's use of naming: she uses names in a manner that is intentionally unnatural, calling attention to fact that the story is an artistic construct. The AIDS patient is never named and neither is his illness. While the way the characters talk is largely naturalistic, it is highly unlikely that real people would fail to mention the man's name in the course of their many conversations about him. The omission is symbolic of the absence of his perspective in the story, and his underlying isolation from the friends that surround him.

The rest of the twenty-six characters are given distinctive first names, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. These friends, as represented by the alphabet, suggest the universal scope of the disease. The characters themselves are all part of a narrow sector of society—well-educated, liberal, urban sophisticates—but their alphabetical naming suggests that AIDS touches every kind of person, from A to Z. However, it also suggests that the man who has AIDS is left out of the collective experience. Sontag's use of naming suggests that he is not one of the "we" that react in response to the illness, but one of the "them" who becomes irrevocably "other" when he contracts it.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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1. Why do you think that Sontag chose to tell the story from the perspective of the AIDS patient's many friends? How would the story be different if it were narrated from the perspective of only one friend or of the man with AIDS himself? Write your own version from another point of view.

2. One of the characters, Stephen, states that "to utter the name [of the disease] is a sign of health, a sign that one has accepted being who one is, mortal, vulnerable, not an exception after all, it's a sign that one is willing, truly willing, to fight for one's life." In the story, Sontag never names the disease. Why do you think that she never writes the word AIDS?

3. Research the Stonewall uprising of 1969 and the gay liberation movement that followed it. How does this historical context enhance your understanding of the story?

4. Sontag is known as a theoretician as well as a fiction writer. How are the main concerns of her essay AIDS and Its Metaphors reflected in the story? Take one of the main ideas from AIDS and Its Metaphors and explain how Sontag explores it in "The Way We Live Now."

Compare and Contrast

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1984: There are 4,177 reported AIDS cases in the United States, with 1,600 of these in New York City. Homosexuals, Haitians, hemophiliacs, and intravenous drug users are the populations at highest risk for contracting AIDS.

Today: AIDS is on the decline in New York City. There are more than thirty million people infected with AIDS worldwide, the majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Heterosexual sex is the main method of transmission in the United States and worldwide.

1984: There is no effective treatment against AIDS until 1985, when the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approves a drug called AZT.

Today: AZT is still used to fight AIDS. When combined with a class of drugs called protease inhibitors, it is effective in delaying the onset of full-blown AIDS among people infected with HIV. The treatment entails taking costly and carefully timed "cocktails" of different drugs. The treatment dramatically increases the life expectancy of those infected.

1980s: The concept of ‘‘safe sex’’ is introduced by public health officials, bringing a new and explicit vocabulary of sexual acts into public discourse. The gay community is initially slow to accept safe sex guidelines, but as the decade wears on and the disease exacts its toll, gay men organize their own effective and innovative public health campaigns.

Today: "Safe sex'' has become a standard in the gay community. It is acknowledged that no sex is completely "safe," so public health officials adopt a vocabulary of ‘‘safer sex’’ and ‘‘harm reduction.’’

1985: In July Rock Hudson announces that he has AIDS, making him the first national public figure to admit to suffering from the disease. On October 2, 1985 Hudson dies of the disease.

Today: In 1991 NBA basketball star Earvin "Magic'' Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive and retired from the game. He remains in good health, is considered a role model for young people, and remains a popular public figure.

Literary Precedents

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AIDS is a relatively new disease and only recently has there been a focus on the plight of its victims and their families. In the past however, other pervasive illnesses have inspired numerous fictional works, including The Plague (1913), a classic novel by French existentialist Albert Camus, that offers an account of an Algerian town leveled by the bubonic plague. It explores the themes of death and illness from a psychological and philosophical approach. In the late twentieth-century, several works explored the struggle with AIDS as well as offering an account of the gay lifestyle in general. Included in this category are such works as Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir (1988), Paul Monette's moving memoir of his lover's two-year struggle with AIDS. It offers an intimate glimpse into the author's confrontations with love and loss. Also of interest might be David Leavitt's The Lost Language of Cranes (1986), which portrays the life of a young gay man living in New York.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Costa, Marithelma, and Adelaida Lopez, ‘‘Susan Sontag: The Passion for Words,’’ in Conversations with Susan Sontag, edited by Leland Poague, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1995, pp. 222-36.

Dinnage, Rosemary, ‘‘Learning How to Die,’’ in Times Literary Supplement, March 22, 1992, p. 19. Fries, Kenny, ‘‘AIDS and Its Metaphors: A Talk with Susan Sontag,’’ in Conversations with Susan Sontag, edited by Leland Poague, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995, pp. 255-60.

Kennedy, Liam, Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

MacAdam, Barbara A., ‘‘Speaking of the Unspeakable,’’ in ARTnews, March, 1992, p. 20.

McFall, Gardner, Review, in New York Times Book Review, March 1,1992, p. 20.

Ravenel, Sharon, ed., Best American Short Stories of the Eighties, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Roudiez, Leon S., World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Fall, 1992, p. 723.

Span, Paula,"Susan Sontag: Hot at Last,’’ in Conversations with Susan Sontag, edited by Leland Poague, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995, pp. 255-60.

Further Reading
Andriote, John-Manuel, Victory Deferred, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Andriote offers a thorough and impassioned examination of the impact of AIDS on the image, culture, and politics of the gay community over the past two decades.

Lerner, Eric K., and Mary Ellen Hombs, AIDS Crisis in America, 2nd ed., Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1998.
A clear and comprehensive overview of the rise of AIDS and its effects. Includes demographics, basic medical information, public policy, as well as reference materials and glossary.

Poague, Leland, Conversations with Susan Sontag, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
This collection of twenty interviews with Sontag given between 1967 and 1993 offers insight into her views on arts and ideas, as well as some personal background.

Shilts, Randy, And the Band Played On: People, Politics, and the AIDS Epidemic, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Chronicles the AIDS crisis from its very beginning. The book focuses on the difficulties of forming an effective public health response and criticizes the government for its silence on the issue.


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Kennedy, Liam. Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Poague, Leland, ed. Conversations with Susan Sontag. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Poague, Leland, and Kathy A. Parson, eds. Susan Sontag: An Annotated Biography, 1948-1992. New York: Garland, 2000.

Rollyson, Carl. Female Icons: Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag. New York: iUniverse, 2005.

Rollyson, Carl. Reading Susan Sontag. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.

Rollyson, Carl, and Lisa Paddock. Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

Sayres, Sohnya. Susan Sontag: Elegiac Modernist. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Seligman, Craig. Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me. New York: Counterpoint, 2004.

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