Mrs. Wilson is a woman diagnosed with an advanced malignancy of the genital tract. Her husband had died from cancer ten years earlier. She is treated with a hysterectomy and oophorectomy along with aggressive chemotherapy by a good doctor who has no bedside manner.

Throughout the story her best friends are always medications to relieve pain: Dilaudid, morphine, Tylenol #3, and methadone. Only her son-in-law really understands her needs and comprehends how to care for her. He is genuine and vital and appears to know as much or more than the doctors in the story.

Mrs. Wilson acknowledges that "to maybe get well you first had to poison yourself within a whisker of death" but discovers that "if you had something to live for, if you loved life, you lived." She dies in a hospital room receiving an IV morphine drip. Before fading into oblivion, she recalls her youth and makes one last attempt at fathoming the meaning of life.


Here is a story buzzing with energy as well as illumination. It juxtaposes the ordinary and surreal elements associated with the diagnosis of cancer and its treatment. Few other narratives could so effortlessly incorporate discussions of flowers, cisplatin, visitors, abdominal metastases looking like little Grape nuts, crossword puzzles, puke and diarrhea, childhood memories of a red rooster and Ovaltine, CA 125 levels, and Schopenhauer.

The story highlights the fortitude of an ordinary woman who is both hardened and enlightened by her terminal illness. At times it appears that all that temporarily holds Mrs. Wilson's cancer at bay is her furious will to survive at all costs. Along the way, she learns that the truth is not just worthwhile, but more important than anything else. Psychological and physical pain permeate the story. The absolute necessity of relieving pain and suffering is underscored. The reader is reminded that patients can be tormented as much by medical testing as by their illness.

This tale is reminiscent of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich (see this database). The protagonists of both stories have cancer and identify the need for empathy and the value of truth. Each receives more comfort from an outsider (for Ilych, it is his servant, Gerasim, and for Mrs. Wilson, it is her son-in-law) than from their doctors or immediate family. They both ultimately experience an epiphany (or at least great insight into their previously unexamined lives) before death.


This story was first published in Harper's magazine.

Primary Source

The Pugilist at Rest


Little, Brown

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