The Body in Pain

Scarry, Elaine

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Annotated by:
Moore, Pamela
  • Date of entry: Mar-05-1998


Scarry argues that pain is the most absolute definer of reality. For the person in pain, there is no reality besides pain; if it hurts, it must be real. This characteristic of pain makes it useful politically. In torture, for example, the reality of the one being tortured is reduced to an awareness of pain, while the torturer’s world remains fully present. This is realized most emphatically when torture is described as information-gathering. The torturer insists on questions that for the tortured are no longer of any concern.

War also makes use of pain. In the dispute that leads to war, one country’s beliefs are pitted against another’s. Both sides’ positions are thus called into question; if there is disagreement about the facts, it becomes apparent that the facts are based in opinion, not reality. The injured bodies of war re-connect the victor’s beliefs with the material world. If the injured body is the ultimate in reality, the injured bodies of war can be used to signify the reality of the victor’s position. Simultaneously, the pain of individuals in war is transferred to inanimate objects or large groups. Thus, one speaks of "Division Six" being wounded or weapons being disabled.

This language also uses the absolute reality of the body in pain to secure the truth of a cultural/political position. Scarry discusses the reality-producing quality of pain in Judeo-Christian scriptures, Marx, and humans’ relationships with inanimate objects.


Scarry’s book is most celebrated for putting the body in pain in historical/political perspective instead of leaving it in its customary, non-historical perspective within traditional medicine. Pain is not only described as a medical term, but as an aspect of war, torture, and other explicitly political acts.

Scarry’s body in pain is nevertheless falsely universalized. She does not take into account cultural/historical differences in how pain is perceived or used. For all humans at all times, she assumes, pain is the mark of the real, even if that stable characteristic is used for different cultural ends. David Morris’s The Culture of Pain (see this database) is an interesting complement to Scarry’s book.


Oxford Univ. Press

Place Published

New York



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