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Idioms of Distress

Psychosomatic Disorders in Medical and Imaginative Literature

Lilian R. Furst

Publication Year: 2003

This interdisciplinary study examines the enigmatic category of psychosomatic disorders as articulated in medical writings and represented in literary works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Six key works are analyzed: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass, Brian O’Doherty’s The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P., and Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Each is a case study in detection as the hidden sources of bodily ills are uncovered in intra- or interpersonal conflicts such as guilt, family tensions, and marital discord. The book fosters a better understanding of these puzzling disorders by revealing how they function simultaneously as masks and as manifestations of inner suffering.

Published by: State University of New York Press

TItle Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xiv

“It’s all in your head”; “Isn’t that what women are supposed to get?” These two responses to the word “psychosomatic” (incidentally, from well-educated individuals) are vivid illustrations of the uncertainties surrounding both the term and the concept...

PART I: Hiding and Seeking Distress

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CHAPTER ONE. Speaking through the Body

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pp. 3-18

In Caring for Patients Dr. Allen Barbour reports on a number of challenging cases that led him to a more successful method of treating them. Barbour headed the Diagnostic Clinic, part of the General Medical Clinic at Stanford University Medical...

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CHAPTER TWO. Swings of the Historical Pendulum

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pp. 19-36

“Until the mid-nineteenth century, . . . , all medicine was necessarily and ubiquitously ‘psychosomatic,’” the eminent medical historian Charles Rosenberg asserts in his incisive article “Mind and Body in Nineteenth- Century Medicine” (77). “Every clinician,” he goes on, “had to be something of a psychiatrist and family...

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CHAPTER THREE. The Mysterious Leap

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pp. 37-52

“Mysterious” or “puzzling”? These are two possible translations of the word Freud applied to what he called the leap from the mind to the body typical of psychosomatic conversion disorders. His own phrase in the seventeenth lecture...

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CHAPTER FOUR. Literary Patients

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pp. 53-70

“The psychiarist who takes it upon himself to attempt a character study of an individual whom he has never met is engaged upon a project which is full of risk.”1 With these words the eminent British psychiatrist Anthony Storr expresses his reservations at the opening of his study, “Churchill’s Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Oher Phenomena of the Human Mind.” He goes on to elaborate on the difficulty of assessing a person (Churchill) whom he never...

PART II: Metaphors of Distress

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CHAPTER FIVE. “ A Strange Sympathy betwixt Soul and Body”: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

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pp. 73-92

The phrase “a strange sympathy betwixt soul and body,” which so aptly characterizes the essence of psychosomatic disorders, is uttered in The Scarlet Letter by the scholarly physician Roger Chillingworth about the “rare case” (135) of pastor Arthur Dimmesdale...

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CHAPTER SIX. Nerves: At the Interstices of Physiology and Psychology: Emile Zola, Thérèse Raquin (1867)

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pp. 93-110

“Nerfs” (nerves) is a word that recurs with striking frequency in Zola’s early novel Thérèse Raquin. Nerves form the mainspring of the actions of the two central characters, the titular Thérèse and Laurent, her lover and subsequently her second husband. Thérèse is at first presented as having the more nervous temperament. Yet...

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CHAPTER SEVEN. “A Sick Spot on the Body of the Family”: Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1900)

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pp. 111-128

“Du bist ein Auswuchs, eine ungesunde Stelle am Körper unserer Familie!” 1 (You are a sore, a sick spot on the body of our family), Thomas shouts at his profligate younger brother in an angry confrontation. The German word “Auswuchs” has a sinister ring, suggesting something ugly, a growth that should not be there,...

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CHAPTER EIGHT. “Legs Turned to Butter”: Arthur Miller, Broken Glass (1994)

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pp. 129-148

“Her legs turned to butter, I couldn’t stand her up. Kept falling around like a rag doll. I had to carry her into the house,” Phillip Gellburg tells the family physician, Dr. Harry Hyman, at the opening...

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CHAPTER NINE. Substance and Shadow: Brian O’Doherty, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. (1992)

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pp. 149-168

“We are both substance and shadow, and it is the shadow that moves the substance” (7), the narrating voice asserts in the opening section of The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. This phrase also applies to O’Doherty’s novel as a whole....

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CHAPTER TEN. Shell Shock: Pat Barker, Regeneration (1991)

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pp. 169-190

Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration fuses fact and fiction. It takes place in 1917, mainly at Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland, where the poet Siegfried Sassoon becomes the patient of the neurologist-psychiatrist Dr. W. H. R. Rivers. These two historical figures are surrounded by a group of fictional characters....

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CHAPTER ELEVEN. Outing the Distress

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pp. 191-200

The essence of psychosomatic disorders lies in the outing of an unacknowledged psychological distress through the body. What forms does this outing take in the body of literature about such disorders? Specifically, how do the medical and the imaginative...


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pp. 201-210


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pp. 211-220


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pp. 221-225

E-ISBN-13: 9780791487594
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791455579
Print-ISBN-10: 0791455572

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2003

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Imagination in literature.
  • Diseases in literature.
  • Medicine, Psychosomatic.
  • Literature and mental illness.
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