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Surviving Illness

fabelhaft's picture


Illness, whether it is real or calculated, can be used as a means of survival/escape. It can lead one to much desired physical, or mental, freedom. A headache is a handy method of retreat when confronted with an unwelcome situation. Haven’t you heard someone say, “Not tonight, dear, I have a headache”? Well, SURVIVAL: WE'LL SHOW YOU HOW presents a special edition: ILLNESS 101. In this issue we will provide you with the ins-and-outs of illness.



Two candidates best illustrating how to use illness to one’s benefit are Alice James of the illustrious James family and Yossarian of Catch-22. These two figures employ drastically different methods of survival.

Alice, the more impressive of the two, takes the more dangerous and commendable course by actively using illness to combat societal expectations of a Victorian invalid. Her diary will be an essential manuscript to using illness as a tool of independence.

Yossarian, on the other hand, uses illness as a means of arresting his involvement in war. The more time he spends in the hospital, “ill,” the less chance he has of being shot out of the sky. As a bombardier, Yossarian is in direct contact with the enemy, death. By manipulating illness Yossarian holds death at bay.



ALICE JAMES: “…these doctors tell you that you will die, or recover! But you don’t recover. I have been at these alternations since I was nineteen and I am neither dead nor recovered—as I am now forty-two there has surely been time for either process” (42)

From within her illness, Alice cunningly uses her life as an invalid to cultivate her indomitable personality which was at odds with society’s image of a female invalid. Bravely, like a true soldier, Alice controls her life by rebuffing sympathy because “[she] would have to surrender her original experience of pain and substitute [another’s] imagined retelling of that pain” Boudreau (55). Alice tells her own story and ignores society’s preconceptions about how she should act: “I feel not the least shame or degradation at being ill” (36). Good for you, Alice!

YOSSARIAN: “Yossarian could run into the hospital whenever he wanted to because of his liver and because of his eyes; the doctors couldn’t fix his liver condition and couldn’t meet his eyes each time he told them he had a liver condition” (165)

Yossarian, the wily bugger, provides a creative use of illness as a tool for survival: he fakes illness in order to grasp at life. If other people fight to keep him alive, he has less to worry about. Besides, “there was a much lower death rate inside the hospital than outside the hospital, and a much healthier death rate. Few people died unnecessarily” (165). From within the hospital Yossarian can let illness help him to physical freedom.




ALICE: “To him who waits, all things come… the blessed being has endowed me not only with cardiac complications, but says that a lump that I have had in one of my breasts for three months… is a tumour, that nothing can be done” (206-7).

Gifted with genius and intensity, Alice unfortunately could not freely flex her intellectual muscles within society. Thus, Alice accepted that “[her] glorious role was to stand for Sick headache to mankind” (48). Because she controls the projection of her image, Alice flaunts her mental prowess by combating society by being snarky and proud.

Alice does not need brute strength to survive in her society. Although her body is unreliable, her mind is the only tool she needs. Society may wish that Alice would conform to the helpless image of illness that prevailed, but her illness allows her to survive with intense determination and impeccable skill. In her battle with death, Alice accepts her mortality and struggles to live her life according to her intellectual desires.

YOSSARIAN: “They couldn’t dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave” (165)

If death can be contained, then Yossarian can relax and ride out the war. Physical freedom is all he wants. Bombing enemy targets does not come with health insurance. Yossarian takes matters into his own hands and orchestrates various maladies in order to be relieved of duty. He looks at illness as a way of extending his life, while Alice knows that her illness can only end in death.


ALICE: “I have been dead so long and it has been simply such a grim shoving of the hours behind me as I faced a ceaseless possible horror” (230).

Even dying, Alice fights against the Victorian perception of an invalid. She remains intensely aware of herself and her illness until the bitter end. Alice dies embodying the woman she wanted to be, not the woman society felt she should be. Her death completes her desire for mental freedom.

YOSSARIAN: “I’m not running away from my responsibilities. I’m running to them. There’s nothing negative about running away to save my life” (451).

Yossarian changes the rules mid-game. Instead of playing out the passive-aggressive card of illness, Yossarian finally takes control and plans to run away. Illness helped him last long enough to gather the courage to escape his current situation.



Illness does not have to control one’s life, nor must one engage with it in the manner of Alice James or Yossarian. Alice uses illness as a pathway to intellectual freedom that society tried to keep from her. Yossarian incorporated “illness” into his life as a measure designed to keep him out of harm’s way. Contemporary society no longer places such obvious intellectual restrictions on women, nor do we force soldiers to resort to imaginary illnesses. However, this survival guide, particularly Alice James’s role, can help us navigate the world around us. Alice expresses herself within the confines of her diary and illness in a manner that begs the question why we don’t do the same. Not why we don’t keep a diary, but why we struggle with asserting ourselves and controlling the image presented to society. In the freedom of the modern world, we have the ability to control the course of our lives, unlike Alice or Yossarian.

Works Cited

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

James, Alice. The Diary of Alice James. Ed. Leon Edel. Northeastern University Press, Boston. 1999.





Anne Dalke's picture

More than survival? Beyond the 19th century?


Like most of your classmates, you've distinguished yourself by the creativity of your project. Like aseidman in particular, who puts Alice James in conversation w/ a contemporary poet, you've juxtaposed her strategies for survival w/ those of a 20th century fictional character. Doing so enlivens a 19th century project with a more contemporary vision. You also enliven your exploration with quite the variety of lively images (and you cite them!)--for which many thanks.

One thing that's unclear to me here, though (as in aseidman's project) is where you, the show host, come down in your own reactions to and judgements of what you represent. I really can't read your tone here: are you acting straight on as a cheerleader? (this is what "Good for you, Alice!" sounds like). Or is it just the reverse, actually questioning the value of the survival strategies you are documenting? Are you actually being satiric? (this is what I heard in "Yossarian, the wily bugger, fakes illness in order to grasp at life" and also in your description of "playing out the passive-aggressive card of illness").

I'm curious to understand better, too, what you mean by the sharp contrast you develop between Yossarian's aims--"physical freedom is all he wants"--and Alice's "desire for mental freedom." Let me nudge back a bit, trying to unsettle that sharp binary, and suggest that Yossarian's desire for physical freedom has a large mental component (he wants out of that war!), and that, conversely, Alice's striving for mental freedom is her way of managing her physical limitations, those both of illness and of gender. Contrary to what you say, "her mind is [NOT!] the only tool she needs to survive in her society." I'm wondering, too, about the way in which you highlight "survival"--don't both Yossarian and James strive for something more? More than "a grim shoving the hours," more than "making death behave"? Something about making their lives meaningful?

Finally, I was surprised by your last "move," in which you distance the strategies we use, to manage and survive our own early 21st century lives, from those of your two character studies. You say that "contemporary society no longer places such obvious intellectual restrictions on women, nor do we force soldiers to resort to imaginary illnesses .... In the freedom of the modern world, we have the ability to control the course of our lives."  Let me challenge that claim with a couple of examples. Why do we still need women's colleges like Bryn Mawr, if society no longer restricts women's intellectual lives? Why do soldiers still malinger, if they don't feel forced to imaginary illness? (See Elaine Scarry's book, The Body in Pain, about how soldiers must agree, repeatedly, to have their bodies used in the pursuit of war.)  In my other course, on "literary kinds," we are theorizing that blogs have become so popular lately because they allow us to "construct a fixed self," @ a time when all seems fragmented; they are the "result of need to valiate the self," @ a time when identity is troubled; they constitute a countermove to stabilize the self, in a time and space of change.....

fabelhaft's picture

While brainstorming for this

While brainstorming for this creative endeavor, my goal, as naive as it was, was to maintain a distance from Alice and Yossarian in order to truly compare the two. I thought that perhaps as an impartial commentator I would be able to see the art in their respective actions. Turns out impartiality is harder to maintain than I thought. As I pitted Alice against Yossarian, I grew defensive of Alice's intellectual actions and the way they contrasted with Yossarian's physicality and his impact on his surroundings. I began to appreciate Yossarian's mental faculties as he tried to outwit his superiors, while also discovering Alice's fight against her own physical limitations.

I agree that the binary I suggested does not quite fit. There is more behind the actions of Alice and Yossarian than simply mental/physical freedom, respectively. However, trying to articulate the overlap proved to be difficult for me.