Illness as a Metaphor

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Sontags expression on self-experience and others view in Illness as a Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors elucidates different views on suffering, health, and illness. Being a cancer survivor herself, she presents personal experience and personal view as well as cultural dictates. A number of metaphors both positive and negative, as noted by Sontag, are used to describe several illnesses, sufferings, and views on health. Sontag brings out these divergent views in the individual and in the cultural perspective (Sontag, 2002). The essay seeks to explain the use of metaphor to express individuals view as well as cultural views on cancer then and now HIV/AIDS.

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According to Sontag different illnesses elicit different views from the society and individuals. According to Sontag, metaphors are not only developed from societal view of illnesses but it is also developed from the historical developments. Individuals view of ones illnesses is largely defined by societal views. Metaphors are used in order to describe the unknown, the emergence of pandemics and illnesses prompts metaphorical emergence. Sontag notes that metaphors are both negative and positive. A metaphor used to refer to syphilis as an illness that encourages creativity in a person. The use of a syphilis metaphor positively gives a perspective that the illness is good in the eyes of the society. Sontag also notes that in the case of illnesses such as cancer and AIDS, negative metaphors are associated with it.

The fact that both negative and positive metaphors are used to describe different illnesses, societal as well as individualistic response to them merges. Sontag notes that a negative metaphor that describes that describes cancers and AIDS are morally wrong and has negative impacts on patients life. She notes that cancer patients are morally and emotionally killed by the metaphors before their physical death occurs. While on the other hand metaphors used to refer to syphilis as a source of creativity seems to encourage those suffering from it (Sontag, 2002). The two extremes created discourage while at the same time discourage patients. Negative metaphors paint an image that portrays the illness as a scourge or a plague while passing the same judgment to those suffering from the illnesses.

Sontag lays emphasis on the knowledge of disease rather than a number of references that illnesses are referred at. She discourages the use of metaphors since it has both individualistic as well as cultural ramifications on patients. Metaphors being used to refer to both cancer and AIDS lead to patients being ostracized from people and yet they are just diseases like any other. The means through which such diseases are obtained is also another concern that describes the views that people raise as metaphors to describe them (Sontag, 2002). Individuals view is largely defined by the cultural view over the same illness; in this case, Sontag lays the importance on understanding individual illness and how they affect an individual. Understanding an illness itself will help greatly in reducing the stigma that is associated with different illnesses.

Conclusively, micro (personal) and cultural view on an illness describes the type of metaphors that will be used to describe it, and it can either be positive or negative. Individualistic perspective however can be influenced based on factual information about the illness and thereby leading to a change in cultural metaphorical references.


Sontag, S. (2002). Illness as metaphor and AIDS and its metaphors. London: Penguin.

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