clock menu more-arrow no yes

Debilitating illnesses in literature, ranked

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women
All-time illness MVP: Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women.
Columbia Pictures Corporation

"Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings," writes Virginia Woolf, "what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light … it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature."

Woolf clearly did not read very much moralizing sentimental literature, in which illness induced either by excessive goodness or excessive wickedness is a grand and pervasive theme. Illness is a time-honored arbiter of moral rectitude: Those who are too good for this world die angelically, with a single pathetic cough; those who are too wicked die with much tortured groaning.

And reading about the illness of a fictional character can be intensely pleasurable. You can judge the wicked and wallow in the suffering of the good. You need not worry about craft and the importance of moral ambiguity; the beauty of sentimental illness is its simplicity. You get all of the self-important self-pity of a nasty case of the flu without the runny nose.

Herewith are eight sentimental debilitating illnesses in literature, ranked from least to most satisfying.

8) Esther's blindness in Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

Saintly Esther Summerson is too good for this world, so it should surprise no one who has ever read a Dickens book that she contracts a vague, smallpox-like disease by tending to a poor, sick urchin boy:

And now come and sit beside me for a little while, and touch me with your hand. For I cannot see you, Charley; I am blind.

Oh, are you, Esther? Or are you going to regain your sight with no explanation the next time you show up to narrate? (Spoiler alert: That's exactly what happens.) Bleak House is an absurdly long book; no one has time for fake-out cliffhangers like that.

7) Colin's mystery malady in The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Colin is the kid who is confined to a wheelchair until never-not-a-badass Mary Lennox explains that you cannot get sick just from breathing air. (His hypochondria is his father's fault, probably.) He's constantly saying self-pitying things. To wit:

I am like this always, ill and having to lie down. My father won't let people talk me over either. The servants are not allowed to speak about me. If I live I may be a hunchback, but I shan't live.

Look, Colin, I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure if you can cure your illness by running around a garden a few times (as happens once he experiences the apparently restorative power of fresh air and flowers), you probably didn’t really need that wheelchair in the first place.

6) Marianne's fever in Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

It’s never all that fun to scold Marianne, because Sense and Sensibility's narrator scolds her so much for you. Why must she enjoy art and poetry so much? Doesn't she know she ought to be sensible, like her sister?

Poor Marianne, languid and low from the nature of her malady, and feeling herself universally ill, could no longer hope that tomorrow would find her recovered.

All the same, let’s just quietly agree that as romantic as it may be to walk through the rain nursing a broken heart — the ill-advised behavior that leads Marianne to fall ill — it’s probably not worth contracting a violent fever and having a near-death experience as a result.

5) Mary's scarlet fever in By the Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Okay, yes, smartypants, we all know that the historical Mary Ingalls could not have had scarlet fever, because despite what happens to her fictional counterpart in the Little House books, scarlet fever does not actually cause blindness. (Experts think the real-world Mary most likely suffered viral meningoencephalitis.) But her ailment is consistently called scarlet fever in the books, so scarlet fever we shall call it here:

Her beautiful golden hair was gone. Pa had shaved it close because of the fever, and her poor shorn head looked like a boy’s. Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word.

Unlike some people on this list, once Mary goes blind she has the decency to stay blind, so points for that. Minus points for having the blindness happen off the page, between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake, and minus more points for Mary’s illness ending Laura and Mary's epic sibling rivalry for the ages.

4) Ruby's galloping consumption in Anne of the Island, by L.M. Montgomery

Poor Ruby Gillis has always been Anne Shirley's least favorite friend — Anne is always gossiping with her other pals about how Ruby is so shallow, unlike Anne, who only thinks about deep things. But Anne is still sad when her old classmate contracts fatal consumption while Anne is halfway through college:

Heaven could not be what Ruby had been used to. There had been nothing in her gay, frivolous life, her shallow ideals and aspirations, to fit her for that great change, or make the life to come seem to her anything but alien and unreal and undesirable. … Mrs. Rachel Lynde said emphatically after the funeral that Ruby Gillis was the handsomest corpse she ever laid eyes on.

Just kidding! Actually, Anne slut-shames her classmate for being afraid of dying. (Ruby thought about boys too much to have fun in heaven, in Anne’s opinion.) But you have to admire the bizarre description of Ruby’s remarkably handsome corpse.

3) Jane's nervous collapse in Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

One of the best things about the Brontë sisters is that their characters feel their feelings so strongly that they tend to feel themselves into a sickbed — even when they’re not actually sick:

Mr. St. John came but once: he looked at me, and said my state of lethargy was the result of reaction from excessive and protracted fatigue. He pronounced it needless to send for a doctor: nature, he was sure, would manage best, left to herself. He said every nerve had been overstrained in some way, and the whole system must sleep torpid a while. There was no disease.

Jane Eyre lets the reader experience the best part of a fictional illness — basking in pity and moral superiority — and none of the grossness. The downside is that Jane’s sickness introduces us to the Rivers family, easily the most boring characters in the book.

2) The narrator's breakdown in "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is not sentimental or moralizing, but you can't talk about illness in literature without talking about the short story where a sick woman is forcibly confined to her room in a treatment known as "the rest cure." (Fun fact: Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote this story after experiencing the rest cure firsthand. She later sent a copy of the story to the doctor who prescribed her cure, and although he never responded, she later heard that he had quietly dropped the treatment.)

I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.

Now we’re getting somewhere. "Wallpaper" is the perfect combination of pathos and spine-tingling eeriness. You can empathize with the narrator’s pain, and you can cringe over her insanity.

1) Beth's scarlet fever in Little Women

Beth, the saintliest and sweetest of the March sisters, is never the same after she contracts scarlet fever while tending to a penniless family. It takes another seven years and most of the book for the fever to kill her, but kill her at last it does:

By-and by, Beth said the needle was ‘so heavy’, and put it down forever. Talking wearied her, faces troubled her, pain claimed her for its own, and her tranquil spirit was sorrowfully perturbed by the ills that vexed her feeble flesh.

Look, is Beth's death sentimental to the point of parody? Sure. Is that what I am looking for in fictional depictions of illnesses? Absolutely. Do I cry every single time I read it? Of course I do, I'm not a monster.