What We Can Learn from the Literature of Past Pandemics

Fiction can help frame our responses and serve as a guide for what happens next.

Arden Alexandra Hegele
August 07, 2020

This is part of a Columbia News series, titled Lessons Learned, which invites the Columbia community to reflect on the pandemic and the insights they have gained from their COVID-19 experience. These essays speak to the innovation, creativity and resourcefulness we have witnessed during this period of unprecedented challenge, as well as some of the silver linings in the actions we have had to take by necessity.

In what we’ve come to call COVID Times, one role that has elicited particular frustration is that of the sidelined medical student. When COVID-19 gained full sway over New York City, students at Columbia’s medical school lost their clinical electives as a measure intended to keep them and their patients safe. How were they to find purpose in a pandemic in which they were unable to make a clinical contribution?

Enter the gift of narrative distance. If students couldn’t be in the wards, they might find value in encountering the pandemic at a remove. So it was that in mid-March, I found myself designing a new Narrative Medicine class, “Epidemic Fictions,” that I would teach to medical students in April, May and June through the domesticated grid that is Zoom. Together, my students and I asked: How do the characteristic tools of the humanities—historical reflection, critical inquiry and attention to feeling and justice—help us make sense of what we’re experiencing? And what could encountering epidemic (and its global correlate, pandemic) in fiction afford us?

We began by considering epidemic literature from antiquity. Even humanities scholars forget that Homer’s Iliad and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex both begin with a divinely punishing plague. Why should it be, we wondered, that for these vital classical texts, the middle of things that launches the plot would be an outbreak of disease? The unseen but deadly contagion seemed to draw a connection between bad political leadership and the existence of the gods. And epidemic is uniquely effective as a narrative device. Because you don’t know you’re in an epidemic until you’re in the midst of it, you’re forced to consider, in Homer’s words, “what is, what will be and what happened before.” 

But in the medieval and early modern periods, epidemic took on a different hue. For Boccaccio, the plague of Florence in 1348 is a “brief pain” that leads to flight from the stricken city and distraction through storytelling, in parallel with the activities of privileged New Yorkers today. And a pseudo-history, Daniel Defoe’s The Journal of the Plague Year (1722), bends our expectations of fiction by including statistical death rates from the 1665 plague of London. It also lends prescience to our moment by testifying to epidemic’s management by police—not by doctors.

Curiously, more recent portraits of epidemic invoked contagious disease on a symbolic level. In its chilling account of lassitude in a public health crisis, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice points to pandemic’s history of nationalist stereotyping. And we found that gothic fictions, like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” captured even more persuasively the psychological reality of living through epidemic, especially our tendency to render an inhuman threat in human terms.

By the course’s end, we had undergone a powerful, collective transformation. We encountered the epidemic in a strange way that enhanced our understanding of how we live now. With their quarantines, stay-at-home orders, essential workers and rule breakers, these historically distant texts felt urgent and immediate.

We began to recognize the power of literature to communicate something fresh about our shared experience, something different from simple reporting. It is perhaps too much to say that we gained insight and wisdom in our response to COVID-19, but in entering the alien worlds of epidemics through the ages, we found aspects of our reality that were unerringly familiar.

Arden Alexandra Hegele, is a medical humanities fellow at the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, a lecturer in English and comparative literature and an affiliate faculty member at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.