29 pages 58 minutes read

Susan Sontag

Illness As Metaphor

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1978

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Summary and Study Guide


Susan Sontag’s 1978 book Illness as Metaphor is an 87-page work of critical theory exploring the language we use to describe disease and its victims. The work was originally published in the New York Review of Books as three long-form essays. Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, though not mentioned in the text.

This genre—critical theoretical examinations of social and cultural events or phenomena—was where Sontag established her reputation. Illness as Metaphor, along with many other works of Sontag’s, occupied a rare space between obscure works of academia and mass paperbacks. The book is erudite, researched, and argumentative while still being intelligible and accessible to a wide audience. For these reasons, the book is considered one of Sontag’s most successful and is one of her most popular. The pages numbers in this guide correspond to the McGraw-Hill Ryerson first printing of the book from 1977.


In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag examines the use of metaphors related to illness—in particular tuberculosis and cancer—throughout several historical eras. The parameters of Illness as Metaphor’s focus are wide, with Sontag citing sources from antiquity, the 18th and 19th centuries, and accounts right up to the time of publication (at one point she criticizes a previous essay of hers for employing a harmful metaphor about cancer).

In forming her argument about the way metaphors of illness cloud the understanding and treatment of disease while simultaneously placing blame on the victim, Sontag primarily cites the written works of authors, poets, and doctors. Implicit in this rhetorical maneuver is the idea that this set of people form the cultural perceptions of illness through their language. When, for example, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, or Henry David Thoreau expresses an idea about sickness through written language, that idea circulate throughout humanity. It is these perceptions, misperceptions, and social understandings that Sontag is attempting to reckon with.