Stories of Sickness and Sorrow: Learning from Literary Accounts of Plagues and Epidemics

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” Camus, The Plague

Every epidemic and pandemic generates story material; writers in all genres become public witnesses. Classic texts like Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” the plague chapters in Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Camus’ The Plague and Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event are just a few examples of narratives that invite readers to reflect on what happens to whole populations when, as now, a pathogen multiplies and moves across the landscape and kills.

As cases of the coronavirus mount, I’ve heard from a number of people who are rereading stories about plagues and epidemics for the insights they offer, and the depth perspective they add to daily news updates. Rather than post an overview of plague literature and film here (easily available elsewhere) I thought I’d offer for general reflection the study questions I gave students as we made our way through literary accounts of plagues and epidemics. Looking them over now, they seem to me fairly useful questions to reflect on as we try to consider what to believe, whose accounts to trust, and how to stay compassionate as cases and complications continue to multiply. Here they are. I hope they’re useful!

1.  What specific literary problems confront the writer who attempts to tell the story of a plague or epidemic?  What makes such stories hard to tell?

2.  In what sense is an epidemic always a political event?  Correpondingly, in what ways is a story about a plague/epidemic always a political statement?

3.  What complicates the issue of causality both for the epidemiologist and for the historian or taleteller who write about a plague or epidemic after the fact?

4.  In what ways does heroism as defined in war stories differ from the forms of heroism defined in tales of plague/epidemic?

5.  In what was does a serious epidemic serve as a convenient vehicle for articulating ongoing issues in community life?

6.  How do plagues/epidemics challenge existing authority structures?

7.  What are the incentives to stay in denial after an epidemic is visible?

8.  What strategies of self-protection are typical of what groups when the community is threatened by an epidemic?

9.  How have plagues/epidemics resituated the church in community life?

10.  How does the medical problem of containment become a legal problem?

11.  What are some examples of scapegoating in times of plague/epidemic?  Why is scapegoating such a predictable response to health crisis?

12.  What does your reading about plagues and epidemics suggest about the basic issues public health administrators have to face?

13.  In what conspicuous ways does language become a crucial tool or weapon in time of widespread health threat both for good and ill?

14.  In what ways are plagues and epidemics economic/class problems?   

15.  Who has what incentives to secrecy in times of plague or epidemic? 

16.  What theological problems do plagues and epidemics pose?  How do they raise the predicament of competing moral principles?

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