On Being Ill

Woolf, Virginia

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Oct-18-2002
  • Last revised: Sep-05-2006


Woolf wonders why illness "has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature." After all, illness is a consuming personal experience that brings about great "spiritual change." Why do we write only about the mind and ideas? Why not the body?

Woolf takes us through the experience of lying in bed ill; the world looks different, feels different, is different. "It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal--that she in the end will conquer." Toward the end of this short essay, Woolf discusses how illness changes our reading habits. We turn to poetry, instead of prose.


For the casual reader, this essay suffers from Virginia Woolf’s elliptical style and page-long paragraphs. In addition, its premise is no longer true; we now have a great deal of writing about illness. In Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography, Anne Hawkins describes and discusses a new genre that she calls pathography--first person accounts of one’s illness--which has become extraordinarily popular in the last 30 years. In fact, an interesting use of "On Being Ill" would be to juxtapose its claim that in 1930 the body was not taken seriously as a literary theme, with our contemporary obsession with the body.

In her pages that describe the world-of-the-recumbent, Woolf teaches eloquently the concept that the ill actually live in a different world from the well. The existential experience of illness is also described superbly by Eric Cassell in Chapter 1 of "The Healer’s Art" (New York, J. B. Lippincott, 1976).

Editor’s note: A stand-alone publication of this essay has been produced by Paris Press (see alternate source below) and features the cover art painted by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, for the 1930 Hogarth Press edition. In addition, the Paris Press publication has a useful introduction (22 pp.) by the biographer, Hermione Lee. Lee provides background for the essay, placing it in the context of Woolf’s other writing and personal relationships. (The essay itself is 25 short pages long.)


First published: 1930

Primary Source

The Moment and Other Essays



Place Published