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Illness as Narrative

Ann Jurecic

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

Series: Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture

Front Matter

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p. vii

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pp. ix-xii

This project found me. The ideas for Illness as Narrative emerged after my husband was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. They began to evolve with a recurrence of that cancer, the diagnosis of a second kind of cancer, and yet another recurrence. The experience of four surgeries and three trips through chemotherapy was his. My experience was defined by all that happened around his ...

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Chapter 1: Illness Narratives and the Challenge to Criticism

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pp. 3-17

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 ...

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Chapter 2: Life Narratives in the Risk Society

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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 ...

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Chapter 3: Responding to the Pain of Others

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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 ...

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Chapter 4: Sontag, Suffering, and the Work of Writing

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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 in Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, she wrote about suffering throughout her career, from On Photography, to novels such ...

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Chapter 5: Theory’s Aging Body

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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). ...

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Chapter 6: Reparative Reading

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pp. 113-131

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 ...


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pp. 133-147

Works Cited

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pp. 149-167


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pp. 169-178

E-ISBN-13: 9780822977865
E-ISBN-10: 0822977869
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822961901
Print-ISBN-10: 0822961903

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture
Series Editor Byline: David Bartholomae and Jean Ferguson Carr, Editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 793012730
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Illness as Narrative

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Diseases in literature.
  • Autobiography -- Authorship.
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