Virginia Woolf on Sickness

Painting of Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell.

As I sit home from work today sick, I’m feeling a little useless. But the congestion in my chest, which, this morning, caused a sharp pain unlike any I’ve ever felt with this type of sickness, in all my years of sinus and congestion type infections (I’m good for at least two of these illnesses a year, and lately it’s been more, probably because of kids)–this pain and congestion demanded I stay home and rest. So in my forced uselessness, at some point in the morning, I remembered the Virginia Woolf essay, “On Being Ill,” which I read not so long ago in grad school. Though healthy when I read it, nonetheless, her take on the mental state we assume in sickness resonated. She addresses the sort-of limbo we find ourselves in when given permission to do nothing all day. We remove ourselves from society for a day or two, which is an odd situation for a working, fairly responsible adult and parent. We’re not sure how we’re supposed to feel. Well, rather than try and wrest from my virus-addled brain a substantial blog post, I decided to have Virginia Woolf speak for me. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy one of the greatest writers ever (and my personal favorite!):

“There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional) a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. . . . [The] illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears . . . where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you–is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest, tangled, pathless, in each. . . . Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed–to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work by day together and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases. Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time in years, to look round, to look up–to look, for example, at the sky.” (1925)

Virginia Woolf knew much more about illness than I, suffering as she did with extended bouts of depression, but isn’t there something in that passage that anyone who’s ever stayed home sick from work can recognize? I loved it immediately, because I’d never seen anyone write about this type of thing. You’d be doing yourself a favor to read the entire essay, and while you’re at it, read a few more. You simply can’t read too much Virginia Woolf.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

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