Beyond Words: A Look At Virginia Woolf’s ‘On Being Ill’

In continued observance of Chronic Disease Awareness Month, let’s discuss one of Virginia Woolf’s most thought-provoking, insightful essays: “On Being Ill.”

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Virginia Woolf is particularly famed in the literary world for her pioneering of the stream-of-consciousness narrative. Indeed, she had an incomparable talent for translating the organic flow of thought onto the page. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that she tackled one distinct theme that frustratingly tends to go beyond words: illness.

Woolf was no stranger to life’s ups and downs of well-being. She struggled long-term with her mental health, recurrent migraines, and successive bouts of influenza. The latter was the impetus behind Woolf’s profound essay, “On Being Ill,” which she penned in 1925 at age 42.

The essay was first published in early 1926 in T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion. Then, years later, it was published again in Woolf’s own Hogarth Press as a standalone piece. The first edition cover, designed by her sister, Vanessa, can be seen below.

Image via Amazon

Illness As A Literary Theme

The principal object of Woolf’s essay addresses the need for illness to stand as a core literary theme. Her opening sentence notes the very universal takeaway of “how common illness is,” thus inquiring into why the literary world explores it so little.

It becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache

Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill”

Lucidly, when it comes to the human condition, illness is an inescapable reality for all individuals at some point. We’ve all had a particularly horrible flu season, stomachache, injury, etc. Not to mention the tumultuous, ongoing navigation of a global pandemic (Woolf, herself, lived through the 1918 pandemic).

From Woolf’s standpoint, the perpetual avoidance of addressing illness, despite its universality, is tied to the vulnerability it induces in us. In the essay, Woolf relays that there is this “childish outspokenness in illness.” It temporarily removes us from our accustomed state of agency in the world and over our own lives.

As someone who has been shakily traversing life with a chronic illness for three years, I must concur that illness condenses oneself to the moment in a very harsh but internally revealing way. According to Woolf, this vulnerability accompanying illness is not something to run and hide from but something to lean into. Why? Because it engenders a very unique state of mind, where our external circumstances slow down, where life gets quiet. In short, it’s a state that leaves us solely alone with ourselves.

Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monk's House
Woolf’s Bedroom at Monk’s House – Image via Wikimedia Commons

This is the situation Woolf herself was in when she wrote “On Being Ill,” confined to her bed and tuned in to her mind in a visceral way. Clearly, it was a state in which she thought most profoundly and succeeded in bringing the resonant truths of human experience to light.

Mind and Body

With pen in hand, writers walk a line between tuning out the world and being hyperaware of everything around them. Virginia Woolf’s essay testifies to this balance in an extraordinary way.

All of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness prose reveals an astute observance of the world around her. At the same time, she indulges this insular quality of the mind, this peaceable solitude. Most important to her commentary on illness is the recognition that mind and body are far from separate. The way our body feels (or, rather, suffers) affects our mind. We don’t perceive and process our maladies distantly and objectively. Therefore, per Woolf’s argument, literature should recognize that connection rather than try and emphasize this false sort of dualism.

Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible, and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February.

But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record.

Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill.”

The missing literary record of these swings between “health and illness,” which constitute life as we know it, was something Woolf wanted to draw attention to. In many ways, she was the perfect voice to do so, given her personal health experiences and her resounding talent for capturing the nature of thought in her stream-of-consciousness style.

Virginia Woolf portrait from 1902
Image via George Charles Beresford, July 1902

Illness and Language

Undoubtedly, within Woolf’s essay, there is a challenge to be found. She recognizes that one part of the literary hindrance in earnestly writing about illness is that “there is the poverty of the language.” It is invariably difficult to describe our pain in a way that feels satisfactory. Complete. In many ways, it is something we can never fully communicate and share with another person. Therein lies the trouble, but also a call to revitalize how we think about illness and evolve “a new language” of the body and mind that best translates the complexity of “being ill.”

To conclude, if there’s one line from Woolf’s essay that particularly stuck out to me in navigating my own health struggles, it would be that “In illness, words seem to possess a mystic quality.” I have long felt, when my health was at its worst, that words were my lifeline. Language serves as my tether to the moment and the ultimate gateway to understanding and expressing myself.

Writers like Woolf emphasize the importance of undertaking the literary challenge of unabashedly addressing and exploring topics that, too often, go beyond words. In many ways, that is the main roadblock of the human experience – the inability to feel fully and completely understood. However, Woolf gives us the inspiration to tackle that roadblock by leaning into the interlocking dynamic of mind and body, which holds a magnitude of inner truths vital to the literary canon.

Finally, for more reading recommendations spotlighting chronic disease awareness, click here.

To read about my personal experience on the mind/body connection when managing a chronic illness, please click here.