Dr. Anita Wohlmann – Medical Metaphors


My research project analyzes the role of metaphors in North-American fictional narratives. It explores metaphors as epistemic and experiential meeting places between medical and scientific information and individual lifeworlds.

Research into medical metaphors took up speed when metaphors came to be understood as a component of everyday language and communication, and not as a poetic device restricted to literature (Lakoff/Johnson 1980). Since this conceptual shift metaphoric language has been studied in terms of an epistemological device commonly used in scientific research (e.g. Kay 2000). Metaphors thus play a significant role in scientific communication and therefore, according to James Bono (1990), scientific metaphors constitute “a medium of exchange which may function both generatively and transformatively” (61). The use of metaphors in clinical or medical situations is viewed ambivalently. Some consider the semantic ambiguity of metaphors problematic when it comes to illness or doctor-patient encounters. Famously, Susan Sontag spoke out against the use of illness metaphors, arguing that metaphorical language can lead to stigmatization. Moreover, the use of metaphors in relation to illness can involve harmful mystification of diseases or ethical problems with regard to truth telling (Couser 2005, Kirklin 2007). Others attribute a therapeutic and healing value to metaphorical language: The struggle to find a language, whether literal or metaphorical, for the inexplicable and unspeakable, the pain and isolation felt as a result of an illness experience can foster new ways of communication and intersubjective connection (e.g. Conway 2013). Metaphors are a ”source of imaginative power” (Marks 2013, 293) and can provide “one aspect of caring” in clinical settings by offering ways of communication that are creative, invitational, open to interpretation, respectful and playful (Hutchings 1998, 283-4).

In analyzing the meanings of medical metaphors through hermeneutical close readings, this study assumes a close connection between the interest of the humanities in understanding the complexity of the human condition and the aim of medical practice as a holistic endeavor that honors the multi-layered dimensions of illness and patients. If Lynne Greenberg (2009) is right in saying that "[m]edicine . . . is not a science of black-and-white facts but rather an art, capable of endless possibilities and as open ended as literary interpretation" (23), an inquiry into the richness of medical metaphors in fictional texts might be insightful to better understand the art of medical care.


Bono, James J. “Science, Discourse, and Literature: The Role/Rule of Metaphor in Science.” Literature and Science: Theory and Practice. Ed. Stuart Peterfreund. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990. 59-89.

Conway, Kathlyn. Beyond Words: Illness and the Limits of Expression. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013.

Couser G. Thomas. “Disability As Metaphor.” Prose Studies: History, Theory, Criticism 27.1-2 (2005): 141-154. DOI: 10.1080/01440350500069013

Greenberg, Lynne. The Body Broken: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2009.

Hutchings, Deanna. “Communicating with Metaphor: A Dance with Many Veils.” The American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care (September/October 1998): 282-4. Web. SAGEPUB. 27 Feb 2015.

Kay, Lily E. Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000. Print.

Kirklin, D. “Truth Telling, Autonomy and the Role of Metaphor.” Journal of Medical Ethics 33.1 (2007): 11-14. Web. JSTOR. 16 Nov 2014.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Marks, Christine. “Metaphors We Heal By: Communicating Pain through Illness Narratives.” Communicating Disease: Cultural Representations of American Medicine. Eds. Carmen Birkle and Johanna Heil. Heidelberg: Winter, 2013. 291–307.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor & Aids and Its Metaphors. London: Penguin, 2002.


Author: Anita Wohlmann