The Wounded Storyteller

Frank, Arthur

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Feb-05-2001
  • Last revised: Dec-29-2009


Frank argues that the modernist conception of illness is a form of "colonization" in that the ill person hands over his or her body (and life narrative) to biomedical expertise. In a post-modern conception, however, the ill person reclaims the authority and ability to tell his or her own story, and to construct a new life narrative from the "narrative wreckage" of serious illness or injury.

Frank identifies four dimensions by which one's relationship to the body may be understood: control versus contingency, self-versus other-relatedness, dissociation versus association with the body, and desire versus lack of desire. Frank presents a diagram (p. 30) in which he sketches four "ideal typical bodies" that arise from various combinations of control-contingency, etc. These include (a) the disciplined body, (b) the mirroring body, (c) the dominating body, and (d) the communicative body. While the first three lead to problems in constructing a satisfactory illness narrative, the last is an "idealized type" in that it is not only descriptive, but also "provides an ethical ideal for bodies." (p.48)

Frank then categorizes patients' illness narratives into three main themes: (a) restitution narratives, in which the plot involves returning to one's previous state of health; (b) chaos narratives, in which all life events are contingent and no one is in control; and (c) quest narratives, in which illness is seen as a spiritual journey. This understanding serves as a starting point for a narrative ethic of illness.


Frank is a sociologist whose earlier book, At The Will of the Body (Boston, Houghton-Mifflin, 1991), describes his own personal experience with heart disease and cancer. That book is an example of "pathography," to use a term that Frank rejects in The Wounded Storyteller because it is not a term that an ill person would use to describe the experience (p.190, note 34; see also Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography).

The present book takes a step beyond pathography in that the author attempts to explore the deep relations between bodies and narratives, and to categorize conceptually different types of illness narratives. See Hawkins (Chapters 2 through 5) for a more empirical classification of themes or "myths" in published pathographies. Frank's book is concise, clearly written, and introduces a number of stimulating concepts and terms to the study of illness narratives. This book provides refreshing new ways of conceptualizing a narrative ethic of caring.


Univ. of Chicago Press

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