Portraying illness in literature is a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, it’s easy to treat death and disease as taboo, peppering language with euphemism and metaphor to escape the pesky vulnerable feeling of being mortal. At the other extreme, fascination with the grotesque side of the human body (we’re made of meat, after all) can devolve into lurid sensationalism.
Here are a few books in the history of plague literature that get the balance just right — though if you have a plague phobia, we recommend perhaps not reading them just now.
Trilogy by Norwegian Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset: The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross
It was nine days since the last death had occurred among the sisters and five days since anyone had died in the convent or the nearest houses. The plague seemed to be waning throughout the countryside as well, said Sira Eiliv. For the first time in three months a glimmer of peace and comfort and security fell over the silent, weary people sitting there. Old Sister Torunn Marta let her rosary sink into her lap and took the hand of the little girl standing at her knee.
“Well, child, now we seem to be seeing that Mary, the Mother of God, never withdraws her mercy from her children for long.”
“No, it’s not the Virgin Mary, Sister Torunn. It’s Hel. She’ll leave the parish, taking her rakes and brooms, when they sacrifice an innocent man at the gate of the cemetery. By tomorrow she’ll be far away.”
“What can she mean?” asked the nun, again uneasy. “Shame on you, Magnhild, for spreading such loathsome, heathen gossip. You deserve to taste the rod for that…”
“Tell us what you mean, Magnhild. Don’t be afraid.” Kristin was standing behind them; her voice sounded strained. She had suddenly remembered that in her youth she had heard Fru Aashild talk about dreadful, unmentionably sinful measures which the Devil tempted desperate men to try.
The children had been down in the grove near the parish church at twilight, and some of the boys had wandered over to a sod hut that stood there; they had spied on several men who were making plans. It seemed that these men had captured a small boy named Tore, the son of Steinunn from down by the shore. That night they were going to sacrifice him to Hel, the plague giantess.
2. Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
Coming of age in early 20th-century America: “ the strange and bitter magic of life.”
The sound of this gasping — loud, hoarse, rapid, unbelievable, filling the room, and orchestrating every moment in it — gave to the scene its final note of horror. Ben lay upon the bed below them, drenched in light, like some enormous insect on a naturalist’s table, fighting, while they looked at him, to save with his poor wasted body the life that no one could save for him. It was monstrous, brutal.
As Eugene approached, Ben’s fear-bright eyes rested upon the younger brother for the first time and bodilessly, without support, he lifted his tortured lungs from the pillow, seizing the boy’s wrists fiercely in the hot white circle of his hands, and gasping in strong terror like a child: “Why have you come? Why have you come home, ‘Gene?”
The boy stood white and dumb for a moment, while swarming pity and horror rose in him.
“They gave us a vacation, Ben,” he said presently. “They had to close down on account of the flu.”
3. Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron
Twenty-somethings in medieval Florence escape to a country house, to avoid catching the plague while drinking and telling each other dirty stories.
As consecrated ground there was not in extent sufficient to provide tombs for the vast multitude of corpses which day and night, and almost every hour, were brought in eager haste to the churches for interment, least of all, if ancient custom were to be observed and a separate resting-place assigned to each, they dug, for each graveyard, as soon as it was full, a huge trench, in which they laid the corpses as they arrived by hundreds at a time, piling them up as merchandise is stowed in the hold of a ship, tier upon tier, each covered with a little earth, until the trench would hold no more. But I spare to rehearse with minute particularity each of the woes that came upon our city, and say in brief, that, harsh as was the tenor of her fortunes, the surrounding country knew no mitigation, for there—not to speak of the castles, each, as it were, a little city in itself—in sequestered village, or on the open champaign, by the wayside, on the farm, in the homestead, the poor hapless husbandmen and their families, forlorn of physicians’ care or servants’ tendance, perished day and night alike, not as men, but rather as beasts. . . .
Irksome it is to myself to rehearse in detail so sorrowful a history. Wherefore, being minded to pass over so much thereof as I fairly can, I say, that our city, being thus well-nigh depopulated, it so happened, as I afterwards learned from one worthy of credit, that on a Tuesday morning after Divine Service the venerable church of Santa Maria Novella was almost deserted save for the presence of seven young ladies habited sadly in keeping with the season. All were connected either by blood or at least as friends or neighbours and fair and of good understanding were they all, as also of noble birth, gentle manners, and a modest sprightliness. In age none exceeded twenty-eight, or fell short of eighteen years.