Literature Annotations

Vrettos, Athena
Somatic Fictions

Genre Treatise (250 pp.)
KeywordsAcculturation, Art of Medicine, Body Self-Image, Caregivers, Chronic Illness/Chronic Disease, Colonialism, Communication, Death and Dying, Disability, Disease and Health, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Empathy, History of Medicine, History of Science, Hysteria, Illness and the Family, Individuality, Infectious Disease, Literary Theory, Medical Advances, Medical Research, Mental Illness, Narrative as Method, Pain, Patient Experience, Power Relations, Psychiatry, Psycho-social Medicine, Psychosomatic Medicine, Science, Sexuality, Society, Women in Medicine, Women's Health

This scholarly study examines "what it meant to ’talk of diseases’ in the second half of the nineteenth century" (2) and how discourses of health and illness were a vehicle for exploring individual and social identities, including gendered, racialized, and national identities. Narratives of physical illness are not simply artifacts of Victorian medical culture, Vrettos argues, but offer examples of the pervasive "master narratives" that shaped Victorian middle-class culture.

Individual chapters focus on the ill female body as an expressive text with variable legibility (and on nurses as privileged readers of ill bodies); "nervous illness" and the role of narrative in reconstructing the self; "neuromimesis" or neurotic imitation of disease; and the "politics of fitness and its relation to imperialist ideology." Vrettos discusses fictional works by Louisa May Alcott, (Hospital Sketches; see this database) Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot (Middlemarch; see this database), H. Rider Haggard, Henry James, Bram Stoker, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.


The book makes a sophisticated argument about the ways in which stories of sickness promise but ultimately fail to stabilize shifting ideas about social identities by anchoring them to the physical body. Vrettos is particularly attentive to the wide and changing array of cultural identities produced by Victorian stories about bodies, health, and illness, and careful to resist grand conclusions about the permanence of such identities or the control of their production.

While the book is classified as "literature/women’s studies," it integrates several important emphases within medical humanities, including narrative theories of medicine; Foucauldian analyses of medicine and power relations; literary analyses of fictions about the body, health, and illness; and history of medicine. Vrettos writes accessibly both about familiar fictional texts of the period from both sides of the Atlantic and about a range of primary non-fictional sources like diaries, medical treatises, and health manuals, while privileging the literary as a mode and method of making sense of individual and social experience.

PublisherStanford Univ. Press
Place PublishedPalo Alto, Calif.
MiscellaneousThe second chapter of Somatic Fictions (in its earlier incarnation as an article for Victorian Studies) received the Schachterle Prize from the Society for Literature and Science.
Annotated by Holmes, Martha Stoddard
Date of Entry 01/25/05
Last Revised 02/11/10