Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Disease in Literature

Just some scrambled thoughts on diseases in literature.

Did you know that you can diagnose what kind of book someone is reading based on the disease mentioned in it? I like to call it a reverse diagnosis. A friend mentioned that there was an outbreak of cholera in the book she was reading. I guessed (correctly), it was set Out West. From the little she told me, I instantly thought: Western romance novel set in the mid-1800s.

It seems to me that certain diseases or health issues are more commonly mentioned in books either written in or set in different eras. Some of these maladies we don't even hear of today, while others are still running rampant. I've noticed that consumption (now known as TB) was pretty popular in the Victorian era.  In the Regency period, you've got ladies with nervous complaints, delicate health, and hysterics. If you get back into the Middle Ages, then you encounter plague and physical handicaps. In the Icelandic Sagas, there is little talk of disease, most people seemed to meet violent ends. (This is just a comment on general trends based on a small selection of literature, not based on any conclusive studies.)

Brain Fever - Among many literary works it appears in The Master of Ballantrae, by Robert Louis Stevenson, several Sherlock Holmes adventures: The Adventures of the Copper Beeches, and The Naval Treaty, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Brothers Karamozov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In The Master of Ballantrae, it was brought on by excessive shock after months of frustrating circumstances. The sufferer was ill in bed, delirious and feverish for a long time. After he recovered physically, his brain was slightly addled. In The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, a girl developed brain fever after months of stress, she, too, was ill in bed for quite some time before recovering. In The Naval Treaty, a young man was taken ill with brain fever on learning that some important papers in his possession had been stolen which meant the ruination of his career. He was in bed for nine weeks unable to attend to his affairs. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri reports that he was on the edge of brain fever. He was in a frenzied state of fear and jealousy over a woman, on the verge of reckless behaviour and murder. So, what is brain fever and why do we never hear of it today? Do people still get it? Various online sources equate it with meningitis and encephalitis (infections of the tissues surrounding the brain). But that doesn't exactly add up. It doesn't account for the sudden and utter prostration incurred by bad news.

Bad-breath - while sometimes this is just because someone ate garlic that day, it can also be caused by a number of factors such as poor dental hygiene or other health problems (WebMD). Halitosis traverses many eras. In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, we hear of the crowds having bad breath. (I felt like puking when I read it.) Additionally he penned this line in Sonnet 130, "And in some perfumes is there more delight / Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks." In Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, we are told of a handsome young woman who had bad-breath and was mocked for it. In Gigi, by Colette, Gigi's aunt evaluates her. Freshness of breath was one point of of her analysis. It seems that having decent breath was a criterion for beauty although probably not as important as other traits, bad-breath was considered an unfortunate flaw, like freckles, or an ill-shaped nose.