29 pages 58 minutes read

Susan Sontag

The Way We Live Now

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1986

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Character Analysis


The protagonist of “The Way We Live Now” is the unnamed AIDS patient around whom all the action takes place. Known only by pronouns—“he” and occasionally “I”—his illness and imminent death characterize and define him. The protagonist is a flat, static character; while his health fluctuates, his limited characterization remains consistent throughout the story. His stasis represents the anxiety and frustration of waiting following a terminal diagnosis: Being unsure of the future keeps him from planning for it and limits his experience to action in the present. While his friends project hope upon him, he doesn’t demonstrate either hope or hopelessness. He rarely speaks for himself, and information about his changing condition is conveyed by his friends’ often self-serving responses to him and the ways his health impacts them or makes them feel.

His lack of development emphasizes the dehumanizing responses of his friends, who no longer see him for who he is but for the disease he contracted: AIDS. The narrative begins with his friends’ reactions to his weight loss, and they take over his story. In this narrative, he becomes an angelic terminal figure meant to inspire others, and the other characters frame themselves as his saintly supporters who visit but seem to provide little true assistance to him.