Idioms of Distress

Psychosomatic Disorders in Medical and Imaginative Literature

By Lilian R. Furst

Subjects: Comparative Literature
Paperback : 9780791455586, 240 pages, October 2002
Hardcover : 9780791455579, 240 pages, October 2002

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Table of contents


Hiding and Seeking Distress

1. Speaking through the Body

2. Swings of the Historical Pendulum

3. The Mysterious Leap

4. Literary Patients

Metaphors of Distress

5. "A Strange Sympathy betwixt Soul and Body": Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

6. Nerves: At the Interstices of Physiology and Psychology: Emile Zola, Thérèse Raquin (1867)

7. "A Sick Spot on the Body of our Family": Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1900)

8. "Legs Turned to Butter": Arthur Miller, Broken Glass (1994)

9. Substance and Shadow: Brian O'Doherty, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. (1992)

10. Shell Shock: Pat Barker, Regeneration (1991)

11. Outing the Distress




Traces portrayals of psychosomatic disorders in medical and imaginative literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


This interdisciplinary study examines the enigmatic category of psychosomatic disorders as articulated in medical writings and represented in literary works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Six key works are analyzed: Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin, Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, Arthur Miller's Broken Glass, Brian O'Doherty's The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P., and Pat Barker's Regeneration. Each is a case study in detection as the hidden sources of bodily ills are uncovered in intra- or interpersonal conflicts such as guilt, family tensions, and marital discord. The book fosters a better understanding of these puzzling disorders by revealing how they function simultaneously as masks and as manifestations of inner suffering.

Lilian R. Furst is Marcel Bataillon Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her previous books include Medical Progress and Social Reality: A Reader in Nineteenth-Century Medicine and Literature, published by SUNY Press; Just Talk: Narratives of Psychotherapy; and Between Doctors and Patients: The Changing Balance of Power.