Don’t Mock the Afflicted: Exploit Them for Literary Gain


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In rather feeble attempts to demonstrate their erudition and unsuccessfully prove that they have a sense of humour, members of the medical profession have in recent years been generating articles for publication in which they diagnose the purported symptoms exhibited by the protagonists of well-known works of fiction. Thus, in the American Journal of Diseases of Children, D. W. Lewis argues that Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol exhibits all the signs of Distal renal tubular acidosis (Type 1); in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Claude Cyr argues that Tintin shows symptoms of hormone deficiency, hypogonadotropic hypogonadism, and repeated head trauma; and in the British Medical Journal, Professor Gareth Williams concludes that Squirrel Nutkin suffered from Tourette’s.

At the same time, there has been a veritable explosion of novels featuring protagonists with illnesses or diseases hitherto considered exotic or rare. The protagonist of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is autistic, Clare Morrall’s central character in Astonishing Splashes of Colour suffers from synesthesia, Lionel Essrog in Jonatham Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn has Tourette’s, Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s novels has Asperger’s syndrome, and it seems like every detective and every cop in every book and TV program is either terminally ill, already dead, hard of hearing or an awkward patronising cunt. Sometimes all of the above (yes, Morse, you).

In an effort to stem the flow of this truly appalling, exploitative, unimaginative and smug sub-literary effluence, we feel it our duty to point out to any prospective authors or poets intending to embark on any similar such venture that all the diseases known to humanity have already been covered by far better writers than you. So STOP IT! NOW! (Here’s the evidence)

Agoraphobia: A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf

Claustrophobia: The Night Before Christmas, by Clement Clarke Moore

Kleptomania: Rob Roy, by Walter Scott

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: The Constant Gardener, by John le Carré

Voyeurism: King Lear, by William Shakespeare

Exhibitionism: Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

Clinical Depression: Doctor No, by Ian Fleming

Anorexia: Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen

Multiple Personality Disorder: Dubliners, by James Joyce

Stuttering: Emma, by Jane Austen

Bipolar Disorder: To the Ends of the Earth, by William Golding

Nymphomania: The Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley

Satyriasis: Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie

Dwarfism: Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Hypochondria: The Iliad, by Homer

Priapism: The Bone People, by Keri Hulme

Bubonic Plague: All’s Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare

Down Syndrome: The Ugly Duckling, by Hans Christian Andersen

Echolalia: The History of Mister Polly, by H. G. Wells

Necrophilia: The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer

Catatonia: Permanent Midnight, by Jerry Stahl

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: The Dandy annual

Vertigo: Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Coprophilia: The House at Pooh Corner, by A. A. Milne

Male Erectile Dysfunction: The Shape of Things to Come, by H. G. Wells

Halitosis: “The Lady of Shalott,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Swine Flu: Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw

Peyronie’s disease: The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James:

Syndactyly: Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White

Haemorrhoids: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

Macular Degeneration: Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler

Incontinence: Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Priapism (again): Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Leprosy: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Gonorrhea: Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

Self-Harming: Rip van Winkle, by Washington Irving

Necrotizing Fasciitis: Hitler, My Part In His Downfall, by Spike Milligan

Cystitis: Inferno, by Dante Alighieri

Obesity: The Life of Pi, by Yann Martell

and of course

Bulimia: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

If we’ve missed any, please let us know. Ta.

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24 Responses

  1. Pope Epopt

    September 24, 2010 10:14 am

    Incipient Alcoholism: Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne.

    Colour Blindness: Cities of the Red Night, by William Burroughs

  2. William Wall

    September 24, 2010 10:50 am

    No Prenderghast – it was, ahem, an uncharacteristic moment of dyspepsia and completely unrelated to your post. Just the book is actually full of references to the great poet’s bowel motions (motion in the general sense – bowel stasis would be a better term in the case in question, even peristasis). I realise I should have been punning on the title (Choleridge or something like that) but in fact the thing I remember most about Coleridge is… well, let’s leave it at that.

  3. Prenderghast

    September 24, 2010 11:25 am

    I had to Google Coleridge and Constipation just to check there wasn’t some obscure pun I was missing. And then I spent half an hour trying to get a witty reply out of Shelley: The Pursuit.

    Okay, not half an hour. Five minutes. 🙂

  4. Prenderghast

    September 24, 2010 12:00 pm

    Ha ha ha. Excellent. Purgatorio would do for Bulimia as well, I think, although I’m still rather chuffed with myself for Wolf Hall. Little things please little minds.

    Why on earth would the CIA come for the Strippergram? They’d have to decipher it first.

  5. Pope Epopt

    September 24, 2010 12:08 pm

    I think you already bagged the best one with The Grapes of Wrath, but:

    Chronic Diarrhea: The Torrents of Spring, by Ivan Turgenev.

  6. Prenderghast

    September 24, 2010 12:27 pm

    Funnily enough, we started with Moby-Dick, thinking of priapism and albinism, and then Little Women, which isn’t really a pun but which we left in anyway. After that we spotted the (some would say) subtler approach of punning on titles, and the rest is The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury.

    It takes a certain kind of lateral thinking is all. That and a twisted mind. As I said to Donagh of this parish, you have to know what Peyronie’s disease is before you can see why The Turn of the Screw might be funny, but once you know, it is (vaguely) amusing.

    Don’t use Google Images to look it up.

  7. Pope Epopt

    September 24, 2010 12:31 pm

    Don’t use Google Images to look it up.

    I did, and:

    Projectile Vomiting: Nausea, by J-P Satre

  8. Prenderghast

    September 24, 2010 12:33 pm

    The Lime Works. That’s a nice one.

    I shall have to leave this in your capable hands, my friends. Sorry for posting and pissing off. Have a great weekend. Thank you for commenting. See you soon.