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Illness as Metaphor

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  2,109 ratings  ·  206 reviews

In 1978 Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, a classic work described by Newsweek as "one of the most liberating books of its time." A cancer patient herself when she was writing the book, Sontag shows how the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses, especially cancer, add greatly to the suffering of patients and often inhibit them from seeking proper treatmen

Paperback, 87 pages
Published August 19th 1988 by Farrar Straus Giroux (first published 1978)
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Riku Sayuj
Feb 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
In 1978, when Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor , a classic work, she was a cancer patient herself. But in spite of that, it is not a book about being ill or about the travesties of being a cancer patient. In Sontag's words, it is 'not what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation'.

Her subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of the various diseases as a figure or metaphor f
Mar 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018, recs
First published as an 87-page monograph in 1978, Illness as Metaphor critiques the dehumanizing myths and metaphors associated with the most infamous illnesses of modernity: TB in the nineteenth century, cancer in the twentieth. As always, Sontag reads as brusque and provocative. Paradoxically, though, the writer spends much time surveying and revisiting the many facets of her field of study. Her argumentation is characterized by digression, repetition, and detour instead of the sequential devel ...more
Steven Godin
Nov 16, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: essays, non-fiction
Susan Sontag is angry, and that comes across in this somewhat disturbing essay, where she writes not so much about actual illness, but about the use of illness as a figure or metaphor. She is particularly concerned with the metaphorical sue of tuberculosis in the 19th century and cancer in the 20th. Sontag's evidence for attitudes about tuberculosis is taken from 19th-century novels and operas, where Sontag says that the most truthful way for regarding illness is the one most purified of metapho ...more
Feb 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
“But how to be morally severe in the late twentieth century? How, when there is so much to be severe about; how, when we have a sense of evil but no longer the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil? Trying to comprehend “radical” or “absolute” evil, we search for adequate metaphors. But the modern disease metaphors are all cheap shots. The people who have the real diseases are also hardly helped by hearing their disease’s name constantly being dropped as the epi
May 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: social-theory
There’s really not a lot of point in my reviewing this book when Riku has already done such a wonderful job here His review is infinitely more comprehensive than this one will be.

Still, I just want to say that I really did enjoy this. I particularly liked the idea that the metaphors for TB and cancer are so differently understood in our culture. I was particularly struck by the idea that cancer is a kind of hardening of cells and that TB is a kind of liqu
Aug 04, 2011 rated it it was ok
Mukherjee quoted from this book so many times in The Emperor of All Maladies that I decided to read it. Sontag is an overanalyzing intellectual – that I knew and was prepared for it, but I still didn’t really get this book. She cites tuberculosis an example of an old disease that was laden with myth and metaphor. It was considered the illness of the artist, brought upon by too much passion and sensuality. It was almost cool to catch it. That may have been so. But then Sontag moves to the present ...more
Matthew Mousseau
Feb 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essays-theory
Illness is the night-side of life, more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds duel citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
I was to describe, not what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that sit
Mar 27, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: theory
Sontag argues that a certain ideological cruelty resides in the metaphors commonly used to describe cancer and other illnesses. And when we let go of the metaphors, we can free ourselves (and those who are ill) from the tyranny of superstition, an over-excited imagination and blame.

On a personal level, I get this. She's suffered; we've all suffered or known others who've suffered. And on page 101, she says that her aim is to "alleviate unnecessary suffering." On the same page, she also says tha
Jan 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
Sontag, a cancer survivor at the time, wrote Illness as a Metaphor to explore and elucidate the metaphors used to describe serious illnesses like cancer and tuberculosis. Sontag argues that the metaphors and mythology created around these diseases make them seem evil and mysterious and very much like invincible predators, and hence sometimes prevent people from believing in conventional treatment to cure them. In addition, since cancer is seen as obscene, repugnant to the senses, and ill-omened, ...more
Feb 24, 2015 rated it it was ok
Herein, Sontag presents an excising polemic on the use of cancer and tuberculosis as metaphors of evil in (respectively) the Romantic and industrialized eras of modern society. Unfortunately, this diatribe is neglectful of non-Western cultures and carries a certain sense of an overly-personal motive. Sontag grasps desperately at every little data point in history suggesting at her thesis. As a result, the author repeatedly rehashes concepts with a frequency that is tiring for a mere 85-page nove ...more
May 31, 2021 rated it really liked it
The book could easily pass off as a work of master autoethnographer. Angry at times, the book is mostly nonchalant. Given the fact, her own experience with cancer does not get featured in this monograph, and the prose posits itself as an objective essay, I reserve that initial thought to myself.

There are few observations which felt like contrivances to make her point (especially the cancer portions a bit). Few instances appeared to be surreptitiously personal (though the tone is objective throug
Mar 14, 2011 rated it liked it
I only finished this in the wee hours of this morning--I need to reflect but I want to capture my first impressions & understandings. Sontag traces the language we use to discuss tuberculosis and cancer, with the former often referred to in romantic/aesthetized terms. In the case of both cancer and TB, Sontag argues, society has a notion that a type of personality is particularly prone to the illness, that the illness reveals something about the self and thus it can be cured if only the patient ...more
Jul 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Published in 1978, “Illness As Metaphor” testifies to attitude towards cancer patients and it brings out a specific history of aversion through examples from literature and philosophy. Although a progression from pure psychological prejudgment to accurate scientific improvement in cancer treatment has certainly been made since 1978, this book retains its topicality.

The study exposes insightful analogy of two different illnesses, exploring the boundaries of their broader cultural and historical f
Gui Freitas
Jul 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Sontag makes a tightly packed argument about the ways in which illness has simultaneously been romanticised and placed on the patient making them the cause of their own illness, when they should be the seen as the victim. She uses the case studies of Tuberculosis and Cancer to argue the different ways in which they have been seen as illnesses which certain personality types are prone to. She ties this nicely to the way in which they are (or in the case of TB were) so mythologized being due to th ...more
Lisa  (not getting friends updates) Vegan
I read this when it was first published and I was in my mid-twenties. A lot of what she said about cancer & illness & health really resonated with me; my mother died of cancer when I was 11 and I’d known other people who had also died of cancer. But, society has changed quite a bit since then, in a positive way, so I’m not sure how much the material in here is still applicable. But, at the time, it seemed powerful and insightful.
Sep 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all readers
Recommended to Brent by: New York Times Book Review, upon publication
I reread this for first time since 1970s in the middle of my own challenges last year.
Sontag is clear in writing about health speech, or ill health comparisons.
God bless and keep her.
Highly recommended.
Jan 31, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction

I wished I had taken notes so I can better articulate my thoughts, but essentially I found it an enlightening read that I'm glad to have absorbed.

Sontag brings up some valid points about the way we regard diseases, especially tuberculosis and cancer. I haven't before viewed how often literature likens TB to be an affliction deeply connected with the person and his/her creative faculties instead of it just simply being an ailment.

She dives deep into how writers often romanticize TB but dispa
Devrim Güven
Sontag’s hostility to metaphors evokes Deleuze & Guattari’s "What is Philosophy?" (1991) which was published thirteen years after Illness as Metaphor, and which suggests purifying metaphors from the philosophical discourse by replacing them with concepts. Sontag’s text is equally a utopian book dreaming to build a “metaphor-free,” or “metaphor-less” discourse regarding mortal illnesses as cancer and TB. Namely, Sontag criticises the tabooing (demonisation) and fetishisation (sublimation) of illn ...more
Aug 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
( Review to come ! ) But really, really good essay. Truly.

Though I must say, unlike the other reviews on this site I didn't think she believed that we could really eradicate illness as a metaphor so perhaps I missed something.
Opal McCarthy
Jul 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
sontag makes such fascinating perceptual leaps between illness/militarism/
the real culpability of metaphors in the way we survive:

'TB is often imagined as a disease of poverty and deprivation... in contrast, cancer is a disease of middle-class life, a disease associated with affluence, with excess' (15).

'Like all really successful metaphors, the metaphor of TB was rich enough to provide for two contradictory applications...It was both a way of describing sensuality and promoting the claims of pa
Maybe I don't like this quite as much as I liked Regarding the Pain of Others because I know a little more about the topic. I know basically nothing about photography, but I know a little more about portrayals of diseases, even if I'm not exactly an expert. I kind of wish Sontag had taken a harder stance on some of the issues she brings up - most of the essay is spent documenting evidence in a neutral tone, and I would've liked a little more time explaining what that evidence implies. I also wi ...more
Nov 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is the first book by Susan Sontag that I've read, and I very much enjoyed it. Previously, I had read her shorter essays and excerpts, but Illness as Metaphor provides much deeper insight into how she thought about politics, literature, and morality. As a book about medicine, it details the many, many ways that disease and its treatment have been misrepresented by allegory and metaphor. It comes off as a demythologizing letter to a generation still frightened by the associated (and unfounded ...more
Reluctant Anesthetist
One of my favorite writer Siddharth Mukhergee made several references to this book by Susan Sontag.That's what sparked my interest in it.It's full of literary references and poetic descriptions of diseases which makes it a delightful read but the main theme of the book is somewhat outdated.Medical community doesn't raise a blaming finger at a patient of cancer for having a character that caused the disease.In 1970s, when Susan wrote this book, it was believed that one of the causes of cancer wa ...more
Jan 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012, medicine, nonfiction
Hm. I was a little surprised at the argument presented by Sontag in this essay: that cancer, similar to TB in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is mythologized, often to the detriment of those who have the disease. She explains the argument for TB very well - the romantic idea of TB as the overexpression of passion and energy, the likes of which we see in common depictions of consumptive individuals. In fact, I was fascinated to see just how much of our current fashions come from mythologizing ...more
Apr 27, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: for-thesis
Ok, positives first: it's a smart, smart book. It's neat, tightly packaged, and makes some stunningly good observations. Susan Sontag doesn't let me down in the epiphanies department.

With that being said, Sontag's kind of a lazy writer. Like I get the sense that TB is this and cancer is that, but she doesn't do enough research to back up her claims. It's just like, claim, pseudo example, move down, second claim, etc. And that's something coming from me because I'm the laziest writer there is and
May 31, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book is an excellent historical analysis of the development of tuberculosis and cancer metaphors. The TB metaphors have largely died down (although understanding them is important to understanding literature at the times when they were in vogue) since treatments for TB were discovered. The cancer metaphors are much more current, despite this work being 30 years old. It provides a foundation for how we interpret illness, the sick, and society using the metaphor for cancer. Because we do desc ...more
Nov 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is so interesting, I can't believe it took me so long to get around to reading it.

I started reading it after a day and a half of having being shut in my room with a cold, not really seeing anyone and feeling kind of dramatic. And it was really soothing. The stuff about cancer as metaphor for middle class repression and emotional restraint made me think a lot about people I know with potentially fatal/terminal/incurable illnesses who have gone on the Gawler diet or similar; my mum and her p
Nov 05, 2007 rated it it was amazing
romantic notions of tb, and how they fare up against cancer's imprint on modernity. oh, susan

Sep 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: health, women
Sontag’s key point is that illness isn’t a metaphor, it is illness, but try telling that to writers and even to doctors. In the course of her argument, as she draws out what they said in novels and private letters and medical treatises, you have the feeling that you are holding in your hand a cluster of well polished cultural gems, each facet carefully cut to catch the light.

She has collected snippets from writers in a way that now would be heavily propped up by Google searches, that in her cas
Nov 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020-nonfiction
Susan Sontag discusses in this essay how especially tuberculosis and cancer are approaches as metaphors more likely than illnesses as itself. Tuberculosis symbolised romantical outbursts and the death of young was portrayed as beautiful. It isn't the same case with cancer as Sontag explains. Cancer-related symbols are used to describe political hatred, disorder in the society, even war. Cancer is threat to the society and often something that is kept silent while tuberculosis especially in 19th ...more
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Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the College of the University of Chicago and did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford.

Her books include four novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover, and In Am

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