Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on March 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319

“The Way We Live Now” is a brilliant orchestration of voices, showing how AIDS can change the lives of everyone who knows a victim. As the unnamed man’s friends speculate about what he is going through, it is as though they are suffering from the disease themselves, trying to keep him alive in their thoughts and wishes. How they react to his disease depends very much on the kind of people they are. They argue with one another and sometimes support one another, desperately seeking ways to cope with the imminence of death. Their friend’s approaching fate forces them to confront their own mortality, although they rarely acknowledge that they are indeed thinking of themselves as much as they are of him.

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Death has many faces, many manifestations, Susan Sontag seems to be implying. For some, it is to be shunned. Some of the man’s friends visit him rarely—one supposing that they had never been close friends anyway. Other friends, such as Stephen, almost seem to want to take over the fight against death—quizzing the doctors, boning up on the latest medical research, and conducting a kind of campaign against any capitulation to the disease. Very few friends are fatalistic; almost all of them hope that a medical breakthrough will come in time to rescue their friend.

They live in fear. One friend finds out that his seventy-five-year-old mother has contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion she received five years earlier. No one is immune to the disease; even if everyone does not get it, everyone will probably know someone close to them who does. It is the extraordinary vulnerability of these people that makes them argue with or reassure one another and question what is the best behavior. Everyone encounters an ethical dilemma about how to lead his or her life and how to respond to those who are afflicted with the disease.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 690

The title of the story, "The Way We Live Now," refers to the lifestyle of a group of friends and of a wider community of people like them who have made a fundamental change in their attitudes and worldviews in light of the AIDS epidemic. The characters reflect on their growing intimacy with death, as their friend's health declines and other friends fall ill from the disease. It is significant that Sontag chooses to end the story with the words "he's still alive," countering expectations that a story about a man with AIDS will end with his death. Sontag does not imply that the man will not die— which would be historically inaccurate given the treatments available at the time when the story is set—but makes a point of closing the story while his battle with the disease is still underway. This underscores her point that AIDS had become a way of life, not only for those who contracted it, but for the community at large.

In the story, Sontag suggests that there is a connection between language and survival. The AIDS patient begins to keep a diary after he becomes ill; in addition, Quentin speculates that writing is a way of "slyly staking out his claim to a future time." The story closes with Ursula's observation that the difference between a story and a photograph is language's ability to move beyond the present tense: "In a story you can write, He's still alive. But in a painting or a photo you can't show 'still.'"

Sontag again connects the use of language to survival when Paolo and Stephen discuss the sick man's use of the word AIDS. They see it as a good sign when he begins to name his illness freely and casually, which is ironic, given that the word AIDS never appears in the story. The fact that the disease is left unnamed suggests that "the way we live now" is not healthy or honest. In her book AIDS and Its Metaphors Sontag seeks to demystify the disease by revealing the cultural myths that attach themselves to the medical condition, obfuscating its reality. In "The Way We Live Now" she shows such mythologizing at work among the patient's closest friends.

The relationships the patient has with his friends are also used to illustrate the way friendship grows and changes in the face of a crisis. The AIDS epidemic is represented through its impact on a group of friends that forms a collective identity when one of them is diagnosed with the disease. Moreover, the story shows how AIDS brings not only death, but changes in life. Yvonne describes the circuit of communication and caring that springs up around the AIDS patient as a "utopia of friendship," which Kate modifies as a "pathetic Utopia," as if to remind her of limits to how much their friendship can help him.

Closely linked to the theme of friendship is the theme of sexuality. It is a crucial element in the connection that holds the group of friends together. In the course of the story, they assume a group identity in caring for the man with AIDS; yet previously they had all been part of a circle of friends and lovers. Several of the characters— both male and female—are named as exlovers of the man with AIDS. He is bisexual, indicating a link between gay and straight worlds. Several members of the group have had affairs with one another, creating further links of love and risk between men and women, gay and straight.

In the words of one character, "everyone is at risk, everyone who has a sexual life, because sexuality is a chain that links each of us to many others, unknown others, and now the great chain of being has become a chain of death as well." The freedom to view sexuality as safe and positive is something that has been destroyed by the onslaught of AIDS. While homosexuality is closely associated with this phase of the AIDS crisis, Sontag is deliberate in representing sexuality in general as an important aspect of the disease and its impact.

Themes

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 690

Life and Death
The title of the story, ‘‘The Way We Live Now,’’ refers to the lifestyle of a group of friends and of a wider community of people like them who have made a fundamental change in their attitudes and worldviews in light of the AIDS epidemic. The characters reflect on their growing intimacy with death, as their friend's health declines and other friends fall ill from the disease.

It is significant that Sontag chooses to end the story with the words ‘‘he's still alive,’’ countering expectations that a story about a man with AIDS will end with his death. Sontag does not imply that the man will not die—which would be historically inaccurate given the treatments available at the time when the story is set—but makes a point of closing the story while his battle with the disease is still underway. This underscores her point that AIDS had become a way of life, not only for those who contracted it, but for the community at large.

Language and Meaning
In "The Way We Live Now,'' Sontag suggests that there is a connection between language and survival. The AIDS patient begins to keep a diary after he becomes ill; in addition, Quentin speculates that writing is a way of"slyly staking out his claim to a future time.’’ The story closes with Ursula's observation that the difference between a story and a photograph is language's ability to move beyond the present tense: ‘‘In a story you can write, He's still alive. But in a painting or a photo you can't show 'still.'’’

Sontag again connects the use of language to survival when Paolo and Stephen discuss the sick man's use of the word AIDS. They see it as a good sign when he begins to name his illness freely and casually, which is ironic, given that the word AIDS never appears in the story. The fact that the disease is left unnamed suggests that ‘‘the way we live now’’ is not healthy or honest. In her book AIDS and Its Metaphors Sontag seeks to demystify the disease by revealing the cultural myths that attach themselves to the medical condition, obfuscating its reality. In ‘‘The Way We Live Now’’ she shows such mythologizing at work among the patient’s closest friends.

Friendship
The story illustrates the way that friendship grows and changes in the face of a crisis. The AIDS epidemic is represented through its impact on a group of friends that forms a collective identity when one of them is diagnosed with the disease. Moreover, the story shows how AIDS brings not only death, but changes in life. Yvonne describes the circuit of communication and caring that springs up around the AIDS patient as a "utopia of friendship," which Kate modifies as a "pathetic utopia,'' as if to remind her of limits to how much their friendship can help him.

Sexuality
Sexuality is an important underlying theme of the story, a crucial element in the connection that holds the group of friends together. In the course of the story, they assume a group identity in caring for the man with AIDS; yet previously they had all been part of a circle of friends and lovers. Several of the characters—both male and female—are named as ex-lovers of the man with AIDS. He is bisexual, indicating a link between gay and straight worlds. Several members of the group have had affairs with one another, creating further links of love and risk between men and women, gay and straight.

In the words of one character, "everyone is at risk, everyone who has a sexual life, because sexuality is a chain that links each of us to many others, unknown others, and now the great chain of being has become a chain of death as well.’’ The freedom to view sexuality as safe and positive is something that has been destroyed by the onslaught of AIDS. While homosexuality is closely associated with this phase of the AIDS crisis, Sontag is deliberate in representing sexuality in general as an important aspect of the disease and its impact.

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