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
A lot of food for thought as we put together all the books we’ve been reading so far:)
I’d like to elaborate on contagion’s role as the facilitator of class discussion on broader subjects. Often times, the effects of contagion on human society led us to contemplate on the nature of humanity–what makes us human beings.
The border between humans and animals is explicitly discussed in Animal’s People. Due to the disastrous chemical leakage that caused him to walk on four feet, Animal has identified himself as non-human and behaved likewise. As the plot develops, however, his humane side is amplified–he is no different from a teenage boy struggling to find his identity, and he learns to develop a humane heart that cares for others. A lthough the disease that deformed his physical appearance posed a question on his humanity, it seems that there is more than superficial traits that makes him a human being.
Our discussion on humanity continued through Black Hole, in which a mysterious disease caused physical anomaly upon teenagers. Some of them were more severely affected than others, their faces grotesque as those of monsters. What made them drift further away from humanity?
Other examples include Zone One, where the mass consuming citizens were compared to zombies, and Ghosts, where the characters were portrayed as living-deads than human beings. Throughout the course, the diseases, either straightforward or figurative, have situated our characters on the trial for humanity.
Lastly, I’d like to add one more award..
Most unsalvageable character – Bucky Cantor!
I really love the idea of these awards. Keep them coming! What would happen if some of our characters met each other? A Bucky Cantor/Arthur Mervyn mash-up? Fan fiction anyone?
Thank you guys for the nice wrap-up on 14 entire weeks of discussion!
One award I’d like to add is,
Worst government: Dream of Ding Village
Runner-up: Animal’s People
I think one of the most realistic aspects of the contagion literature we’ve discussed so far is that there is no known answer to everything. Where exactly does it come from? Is it a divine retribution? How are we supposed to react? If anything, we’ve learned that there is no one way to answer this. People tend to fall into a number of patterns, but still the individual responses vary from case to case.
To bring up the Contagion movie, I personally enjoyed the WHO and CDC aspects of it (those space suits–!!!!! hahaha), but felt like there could have been some more room for drama, considering its considerable cast. It puzzled me that it was neither really focused on the virus as a protagonist (such as in Hot Zone) nor the emotional responses on an individual and social basis. I suppose it slightly tilts towards the former… but why mention infidelity if there is no emotional response to it? Mitch Emhoff and his daughter’s rather dry response to the deaths of TWO MEMBERS of their family took away much of the emotional evolvement for me. I wonder what everyone else thought of the movie?
Anyways, kudos to Dr. Sanjay Gupta for his cameo ‘performance’!
Thanks everyone, for making this my most enjoyable course this semester. Have a healthy winter break.