Accepting the Limits of Language

While Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller explored the potency of illness narratives, Kathlyn Conway’s Illness and the Limits of Expression exposes the shortcomings inherent in many of these works. Conway outlines the paradoxical nature of illness narratives: “Literature offers the possibility of representing the shattering experience of illness, but it proves woefully inadequate for depicting the nature of physical pain and the dissolution of the self” (16).

Language as a form of expression, as a means of communicating physical or mental stress, falls short of its demands. Conway denounces the most popular form of illness narratives: the triumph narrative. This form of expression finds fault in its glorification of the illness experience. Often, these are written at the conclusion of an illness experience and reflect on past experiences rather than chronicling illness through its progression. This narrative form aligns with the cultural American belief that “anything is possible,” which makes it of great appeal to the general public (6). These stories are of overcoming illness and disability, of rising above the challenges that they present, and ultimately emerging from this learning experience with enduring strength.

Despite the temptation of reconstructing past illness as triumph narratives, Conway advocates for the importance of non-triumph narratives. She claims that a triumph narrative “enables individuals and the culture to ignore the needs of the ill and disabled,” when instead, illness narratives should illuminate the vulnerabilities of these conditions and the resulting implications (24). Illness narratives present an opportunity to strip illness down to its roots, to boldly expose it for what it is. These narratives track the evolution of the illness in conjunction with the evolution of the self.

Conway exposes the paradoxical nature of illness natures. Literature empowers those who experience illness, but it simultaneously belittles that very experience. While language allows individuals to dissociate the self from the body and to express physical pain through mental thought, narratives also enable the reclamation of the body through an intimate and honest engagement with illness.

Discussion Questions:

1. In what ways are illness narratives paradoxical? What does this paradox reflect about illness? (55)

2. Why does Conway choose to address illness and disability together? How does this affect her argument and her definition of these terms? (14)

3. What is the right way to react or interpret illness narratives? Or rather, is there a right way? (19)

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