Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Illness as Narrative

Illness as Narrative

Ann Jurecic
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Illness as Narrative
    Book Description:

    For most of literary history, personal confessions about illness were considered too intimate to share publicly. By the mid-twentieth century, however, a series of events set the stage for the emergence of the illness narrative. The increase of chronic disease, the transformation of medicine into big business, the women's health movement, the AIDS/HIV pandemic, the advent of inexpensive paperbacks, and the rise of self-publishing all contributed to the proliferation of narratives about encounters with medicine and mortality.While the illness narrative is now a staple of the publishing industry, the genre itself has posed a problem for literary studies. What is the role of criticism in relation to personal accounts of suffering? Can these narratives be judged on aesthetic grounds? Are they a collective expression of the lost intimacy of the patient-doctor relationship? Is their function thus instrumental-to elicit the reader's empathy?To answer these questions, Ann Jurecic turns to major works on pain and suffering by Susan Sontag, Elaine Scarry, and Eve Sedgwick and reads these alongside illness narratives by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Reynolds Price, and Anne Fadiman, among others. In the process, she defines the subgenres of risk and pain narratives and explores a range of critical responses guided, alternately, by narrative empathy, the hermeneutics of suspicion, and the practice of reparative reading.Illness as Narrativeseeks to draw wider attention to this form of life writing and to argue for new approaches to both literary criticism and teaching narrative. Jurecic calls for a practice that's both compassionate and critical. She asks that we consider why writers compose stories of illness, how readers receive them, and how both use these narratives to make meaning of human fragility and mortality.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7786-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. One Illness Narratives and the Challenge to Criticism
    (pp. 1-17)

    From the winter of 1918 until the spring of 1919, an influenza outbreak swept the globe, killing fifty to a hundred million people, as much as 5 percent of the world’s population (Barry 397). Despite the flu’s ferocity, for much of the twentieth century this pandemic nearly vanished from popular consciousness. Although more United States soldiers died from the flu than from combat during World War I, it has rarely been given a significant place in American histories of the war.¹ Even though, according to historian John M. Barry, it “killed more people in a year than the Black Death...

  2. Two Life Narratives in the Risk Society
    (pp. 18-42)

    As we have seen, there are many explanations for why and how illness memoirs evolved into a thriving genre in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. When science developed better explanations for disease and more effective treatments, personal stories of illness were displaced from clinical settings in the United States and surfaced elsewhere. With the growth of the publishing industry, changed attitudes toward personal disclosure, patient activism about women’s health and AIDS, and the rise of the Internet, more people turned to thewrittenword to give illness meaning. At least one more factor that motivated the emergence and...

  3. Three Responding to the Pain of Others
    (pp. 43-66)

    While the experience of being “at risk” is newly recognized as presenting a problem for language and literature, pain has long been understood to resist expression in words. At its worst, pain is unchosen, extreme, and without purpose; it obscures memory, thought, language, everything but itself. How can one communicate such an experience? Chronic pain does not present the same challenge to expression as acute pain and even agony can find its way into a story as time passes, but the problem posed by pain remains. How people express pain is highly varied, inherently subjective, and thus difficult—perhaps even...

  4. Four Sontag, Suffering, and the Work of Writing
    (pp. 67-91)

    Susan Sontag has done more than any other single writer to bring attention to how literature documents and shapes the cultural meaning and experience of illness, pain, and suffering.¹ While Sontag’s work on illness assumes center stage inIllness as MetaphorandAIDS and Its Metaphors, she wrote about suffering throughout her career, fromOn Photography, to novels such asThe Volcano Lover, and to her final book,Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag’s body of work reveals a deep and sustained exploration—with many turns, conflicts, and contradictions—of the ethics of reception, how audiences regard and respond to...

  5. Five Theory’s Aging Body
    (pp. 92-112)

    To ask about the function of criticism at the present time is to invite nearly as many answers as there are critics. The profession has traveled a long way from Matthew Arnold’s confident declaration in 1865 that the only rule a critic must follow is “disinterestedness” in order “to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespectively of practice, politics, and everything of the kind” (“Function,” 17). While a good number of today’s critics might define their work as motivated by “interest,” rather than disinterest, there is no consensus on what the focus of that interest...

  6. Six Reparative Reading
    (pp. 113-132)

    In previous chapters, I discussed the challenges to expression posed by experiences of risk, pain, suffering, and even sympathy, and examined how personal narratives about illness present problems for dominant literary critical practices that are based in hermeneutics of suspicion. In her final book,Touching Feeling, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick labels interpretive approaches that seek to expose secrets, errors, and manipulation “paranoid practices.” She points out a truth that is hard to see from within the world of criticism: “paranoia knows some things well and others poorly” (130). Among the things that paranoia does not know well are personal accounts of...