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Submitted Literature

'On Being Ill'

By Virginia Woolf


Virginia Woolf’s short story-like essay, ‘On Being Ill’ (1930), draws on illness narrative, personal autobiographical anecdotes and imaginative reveries. Woolf examines how a wide range of illnesses, from toothache to complete mental breakdown, locate the sufferer in a position outside of the everyday world of work and ‘the army of the upright’ (16). Woolf explores the imaginative, creative potential of this recumbent position, as an alternative perspective through which both literary form and mental illness can be re-imagined. The narrator is depicted as lying on her back, staring at the swirling clouds, a ‘gigantic cinema play[ing] perpetually to an empty house’ (14). The meandering sentence structures reproduce the narrator’s thought processes, moving fluidly between images, perceptions, past and present.


Woolf identifies a paradox: she argues that it is strange, given how common physical and mental illness is in everyday life, how rarely it is represented in literature. She suggests, at the beginning of the twentieth century, that this ‘unexplored country’ of illness must take its place alongside love, jealousy and battle as one of the great themes of literature. Woolf challenges a Cartesian separation of mind and body by suggesting that the body cannot be treated as merely ‘a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks’ (4). This merging of mind and body is reflected in the fusing of many different forms, genres and voices within the essay itself. Woolf’s recognition of the mediation of all experience by the body opens up opportunities for new forms of language, formal experimentation and an emphasis on sensory perception. ‘On Being Ill’ introduces a focus on the interior life of the individual that extended throughout Woolf’s career, as she used the process of writing to both record and better understand her own experiences of depression and mental illness. 

Key Themes:

  • Hysteria

Significant Quotes / Pages

‘Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it begins, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are disclosed…It becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature’ (p.4).


‘Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear and is…null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true’ (p.4).

Reference: Virginia, Woolf. 1930. 'On Being Ill'. Consortium, 2002


Alice Hall
Date Review Submitted: Saturday 8th May 2010