January 23, 2013 · 3:00 am
In the second half of Illness and the Limits of Expression, Conway explores the literary methods of metaphor, narrative form, and endings. While Sontag critiques metaphor as something that confines individuals within stereotypes, others see metaphors as necessary to come as close to an accurate representation of the illness experience as possible.Narrative form often strives for linearity, a beginning, middle, and end; individuals seek to construct this sense of coherence but also to expose the interruptions and interjections caused by illness.
Conway discusses the complexity of the ending, and how there is often a desire to end on a happy note. Some authors feel themselves gravitating towards this triumphant conclusion, but they catch themselves in time to adopt an ending that is better suited with the rest of their narrative.
After laying out a basic foundation of illness narratives, Frank delves into his three types of illness narratives: the restitution narrative, the chaos narrative, and the quest narrative. He argues that illness narratives often contain elements and moments of each of these perspectives, and he explores the defining characteristics of each [see table].
The restitution narrative focuses on the conclusion of illness, the ultimate victory over illness, an individual’s reintegration into society and return to the normalcy of everyday life. The chaos narrative claims that “chaos is told in the silences that speech cannot penetrate or illuminate”; thus, the chaos narrative is an anti-narrative that highlights the interruptions caused by illness (101). The quest narrative focuses on the temporal enactment of the illness experience and an individual’s transformation over time.
Frank explains how these narratives coexist and intermingle to compose the illness experience. He toys with the idea of patients as witnesses to illness and illness narratives as a kind of testimony. The concluding chapter explores suffering, for “all illness stories share a common root in suffering as ‘an existential universal of human conditions’” (170). He relates suffering to illness narratives by showing how both telling and hearing stories has the power to heal.
This table outlines the 3 types of illness narratives. Click to enlarge!
1. What literary characteristics of an illness narrative can hint at a shift in the type of narrative? For example, what syntax, diction, etc.?
2. How does classifying the narrative type affect the analysis of an illness narrative?
January 17, 2013 · 8:00 am
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.
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)