Embracing Etiology in Arthur Mervyn

Etiology, defined as the ‘the causation of diseases and disorders as a subject of investigation’, is a predominant feature throughout Arthur Mervyn. From the very beginning of the memoir, we learn that Stevens does not believe in the conventional superstitious remedies of ‘gun-powder, vinegar or tar’, but rather, he believed in the need for ‘cleanliness, reasonable exercise, and wholesome diet’. In other sections of the book however, the other side of the coin is demonstrated: streets are deserted, families abandon one another, workers are not cared for (as shown in the case of Wallace), and interaction between people is avoided.

The conceptions on the origin of the disease stem from two main sources: the first being contagion, and the other being environmentalists. Stevens and Medlicote, the two physicians introduced in Volume 1 argued against contagion. The thoughts and theories regarding the origin of the disease greatly affect the population: as soon as Medlicote comforts Mervyn against the contagionist theory, Mervyn describes a physical well being. This goes to show how the mental conception of the disease affects the physical body; it parallels the view we discussed in class regarding a ‘social disease’ whose root is rumor. The rumor of contagion caused the sick to ‘die of negligence’ rather than disease itself; and the description of the disease is repeatedly mentioned as a ‘tale’. The situation is described:


“the disease created a psychic environment of heightened anxiety and nagging uncertainty, presenting Philadelphia’s denizens with a particularly horrific set of phenomena for which no satisfactory explanation could be given. This sense of uncertainty, of anxiety over the causes of appearances, pervades the first half of Arthur Mervyn”


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