- Envisioning Disease, Gender, and War: Women’s Narratives of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic by Jane Elizabeth Fisher
Virginia Woolf’s 1926 essay “On Being Ill” questions why illness has failed to feature as a prime theme of literature alongside love, battle, and jealousy. Jane Elizabeth Fisher’s invaluable book lays the groundwork for understanding how the twentieth-century novel has not been, as Woolf suggested, “devoted to influenza” (74). The tone of Woolf’s question takes on new dimensions when one contrasts the scope of the 1918 influenza pandemic and the scope of the First World War, which has certainly framed our readings of twentieth-century literature and modernism. Compared to the estimated nine million that died in the war’s four years, current estimates are “that the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million worldwide and probably closer to 100 million” (14). The sources of this silence are twofold. On the one hand, Fisher argues, reading and writing about an event as traumatic as the pandemic would be difficult for survivors; on the other, as Woolf predicted, the novel devoted to influenza would defy conventional literary expectations. By analyzing how the pandemic was suppressed in literature between the wars and has now become a usable “historical trauma” for contemporary writers (37), Fisher’s text carries out its important task: namely, examining the “complex processes of repression and recollection” in literature and history that have made the 1918 influenza pandemic “absent, invisible, or underinterpreted” until the last decade (1). Fisher’s work is important because it provides a foundation for redressing the pandemic’s absence from literary criticism of modernism; a third source of its invisibility, I suggest, lies in critics’ lack of a paradigm for recognizing its presence.
Fisher’s prologue and first chapter are essential reading: the questions raised inaugurate a new paradigm for rereading modernity in the first half of the twentieth century, a paradigm that Fisher extends to the rewritings of that moment that have begun to proliferate in recent decades (extensive footnotes document this trend, which ranges from popular memoir to children’s literature to postmodern fiction). The first four chapters focus on literary narratives that link war and the pandemic and portray a dynamic development in gendered identity. Fisher generally eschews theorizing a relationship between modernist modes of writing and the influence of the pandemic, but her analysis of the empowering vision that illness creates in these novels certainly invites such a consideration. Her compelling, chapter-length close readings of Mrs. Dalloway, Willa Cather’s One of Ours, Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” and Alice Munro’s “Carried Away” reveal in each a female flâneur, a “figure fitted in (figurative) mourning; by experiencing the shocks of modernity, she becomes a hero(ine), if not permanently a convalescent,” demonstrating a “dynamism” her male counterparts lack (27). [End Page 606]
In a few instances, the pull of the war or other narratives—in particular, a recurring preoccupation with Joan of Arc that is less convincing than her analysis of the women writers’ use of Saint Sebastian imagery—distract from Fisher’s otherwise persuasive examination of “vision” and gender destabilization as a consequence of the pandemic. Fisher analyzes these tropes in contemporary works by Alice Munro and Ellen Bryant Voigt in the fifth chapter, arguing that they portray the same gender destabilization but deny their characters “the possibility of positive transformation” (38). Munro’s 1991 story, published well after the epidemic (as was “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” published in 1939—a point Fisher could consider), bears strong thematic continuities with the earlier works; in contrast, Voigt’s sonnet sequence Kyrie is the only poetry discussed and receives the most attention to the relationship between innovative form and content. In her last chapter, Fisher examines late-twentieth-century Nigerian novels about the 1918 pandemic, Buchi Emecheta’s The Slave Girl and, very briefly, Elechi Amadi’s The Great Ponds, showing how the dominance of the First World War is supplanted by...