ISSN 1538-1080

The Great Confessional: Virginia Woolf on Illness

The Great Confessional: Virginia Woolf on Illness

The success of Michael Cunninghams Pulitzer Prize winning novel (1998) and the Academy Award winning movie (2002) The Hours has brought Virginia Woolf to the forefront again. Illness plagued her throughout her life. Humans posses a tendency toward repeated and protracted illness that helps define who we are. In On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf lays the groundwork for what we now call pathography, first person accounts of ones illness exemplified by Sontags Illness as Metaphor (1977). Background In the opening scene of the novel and also the movie, its late March 1941. Virginia Woolf has just finished writing a suicide note to her husband Leonard. (She also wrote a second note to her sister, Vanessa.) Virginia Woolf, aged fifty-nine, leaves her home around 11:30 in the morning wearing a heavy winter coat, taking her walking stick, and crosses the meadows to the nearby River Ouse. At the banks of the river, she places a large stone in one of the pockets of her coat. Then, nonchalantly, she walks into the river. Her body was found by children three weeks later and cremated shortly thereafter. The verdict of the inquest was, Suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed. A finding often recorded for suicide victims by British coroners. Thus, death ended a lifetime of illnesses. Illness is a continuing thread of Virginia Woolfs life. Breakdowns and suicide attempts throughout her lifetime are evidence of bipolar disorder that led, in the forty years of her adult writing life, to frequent bouts of illnesses, in which mental and physical symptoms intertwined

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