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“Half in Love with Easeful Death:” Tuberculosis in Literature

1 May 2012


[From the introduction]

Within the history of literature no other disease is as complex and enigmatic as tuberculosis. The disease has known many names, including the Great White Plague, Phthisis, and, most famously, Consumption, before receiving the decidedly unromantic name tuberculosis in the mid-Nineteenth Century (Dubos and Dubos 10). Tuberculosis stands unique within the realm of literature against other diseases due mainly to its commonality: the disease was, and remains today, one of the most prolific killers of human beings all over the globe. In his book The White Death: A History of Tuberculosis, Thomas Dormandy writes that, unlike other plagues such as scarlet fever or measles, tuberculosis “transformed the lives as well as causing the deaths of its victims” (xiii). For centuries, tuberculosis was a disease that was believed to be linked with special poetic and aesthetic qualities, and these beliefs were reflected not just in literature, but in medicine as well. As science progressed, so did the literature of tuberculosis – the disease changed in literature and in medicine from something romantic and mysterious but a disease caused by an agent (the tuberculosis bacillus) which could be conquered. As Clark Lawlor points out in his book Consumption and Literature: “literature affected consumption’s reality, just as consumption shaped literature to a hitherto unrecognized extent” (190).

The literary portrayal of tuberculosis from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth century contrasts with the scientific reality of the disease with the oft-romanticized portrayal in fiction. An examination of a selection of the major works of John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Brontë, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Thomas Mann reveals that these writers had firsthand experience with tuberculosis – they either suffered from the disease themselves or were surrounded by those who did. Tuberculosis and the aestheticization of the disease play a major role in many of their works.


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