Through the use of diction, the authors of Contagion Literature have managed to portray …
We started Contagion with King Oidipus. As baptism, we read the scene of Oidipus gauging his eyes out with talons which, it can be argued, foreshadowed the horrors we would go on to visualize in the succeeding books. For the plot of Oedipus, the plague served as a precursor, an agent that began the plot but disappeared from the book soon after, making it easy to forget to feature it in a plot summary written for the course Contagion. In the books read since then, some diseases have been more outspoken than others and all with their own consequences. Taking a look back, in what ways did disease affect class discussions even when it was not explicitly being talked about? For example, every time we examined rumors, weren’t we always looking at it with the connotation of its resemblance to disease in the way it spreads?
Among its firsts, Oedipus made us conscious about the role of rumors in an epidemic, featured the debate of fate vs free will into the contagion narrative and juxtaposed the land’s anatomy with human anatomy [“a woman’s barren labor pains” (Sophocles, 92)]. Since then, a notable time Oidipus was recalled was in drawing the comparison between son Oidipus and the son in Dream of Ding Village inheriting the judgment for the sins of their fathers.
Next, DoFoe. Although slightly tedious, DoFoe introduced important plague discourses such as death counts, quarantines, plague seen as a heaven sent judgment and large public gatherings in between an epidemic. Since, our class discussions have closely monitored the reactions of the characters (both sick and healthy) towards those around them, and the collective reaction against the plague. We have also seen numerous ways of responding depending on the manner people understood the plague. Mocking it (Pushkin), trying to infect others (Defoe) or just trying to help (Camus); each novel was less neater about the above categories. People’s mentality was affected, influence that proved, sometimes to be stronger than rationality. The reactions are both specific and universal (we often recognized very similar reactions between characters of different epidemics, time periods and geographical regions). What do we do with our current database of reactions of characters in various disease and epidemic scenarios?
As we progressed through the course and books began to be culled from more recent time periods, the need to reason out disease as God’s retribution was less present. Diseases have been represented as a mystery for people, forcing their imagination, their intelligence and maybe, most importantly, their beliefs. Unable to understand their own destiny, they tried to assign the force of plague to their divinity. With progress, the faith in gods seems to have been replaced by the faith in science. However, this debate was culled again in the fairly recent Nemesis. Is God a time period or more inherent that that to human nature?
Often times, the disease is not an isolated social entity in the book but is rather in conjunction with other social epidemics like the war or the Bhopal incident. Another book, Dream of Ding Village exposes the blood bank business and ensuing AIDs epidemic rampant in China. How is disease a social epidemic that cannot necessarily survive in isolation but requires the presence of other social epidemics in order to exist? Disease has also been exploited as an allegory for larger concepts. In Zone One, the zombie epidemic is used to explain the concept of the likeness of consumers to zombies. The “bug” in Black Hole makes tangible teenage alienation and angst. How does the social commentary in these books differ from the books that use disease in a more straightforward manner? What if sometimes yellow fever is just the yellow fever and zombification is just zomfbification? When do such allegories stop becoming relevant? Do such allegories in literary examination have a life span similar to wise words becoming clichés?
There has also been a succession of rather interesting narrators. It was rather difficult to get a class consensus on whether or not to believe Arthur Mervyn and his misadventures with yellow fever. Arthur Mervyn also slowly engulfed the narrative in a way similar to how disease takes hold of the body or of society. Since, we have had a dead narrator, Animal, a teenager. We have also had in total one female voice for the narrator which was in a book written by the only female writer (actually, two female narrators if you count Black Hole). Is it a more feminist concern or instead a concern about the minority of disease literature or both?
“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed … it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”(Virginia Woolf 1930)
So much to think about.
Most honest narrator: Animal [Animal’s people]
Least honest narrator: DoFoe [A journal of the Plague Year]
Best coping mechanism in an epidemic: The group of storytellers in [The Decameron]
Worst coping mechanism in an epidemic: The priest [A feast during the plague]
Best Doctor: Dr. Stevens [Arthur Mervyn], Rieux [The Plague]
Most graphic: Black Hole
Ideal book for class discussion: Nemesis (might have been a different one for everybody)
Feel free to add your own categories.
Camilla, Silviu, Simrat, Sudikchya