29 pages • 58 minutes readSusan Sontag
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Susan Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now” is a short story written during and about the early days of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic in the US. Published in the New Yorker on November 24, 1986, the story follows the experiences of a social circle when one of their number is diagnosed with AIDS. Using stream of consciousness, Sontag illustrates arguments she made in Illness as Metaphor (1978), a work of critical theory, by exploring the consequences of approaching Illness as a Metaphor for terminal disease. The story further examines themes of The Spectacle of Tragedy and The Progression of Grief.
This guide refers to the digital edition of the story found on the New Yorker’s website.
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“The Way We Live Now” presents a man’s AIDS diagnosis and the comments of over two dozen other characters, identified by first names only, who discuss him. The unnamed male patient is the protagonist. Written as a series of conversation snippets, the story begins with a description of the man’s early symptoms of illness as told by two friends, Max and Ellen. Their mutual friend is losing weight and feeling ill, but he avoids calling the doctor.
The number of voices in the story quickly increases: Greg shares that the friend didn’t want to see a doctor, and Tanya adds that he must be scared because he stopped smoking. Orson says the protagonist is just looking out for his general health. Stephen asks if their friend has a good doctor; Frank confirms this and reveals that their friend promised to visit the doctor when work allows. The ill friend admits to Jan that he is afraid but swears to Quentin that this is a recent development. The protagonist clarifies to Paolo that his fear is simply normal for anyone who makes it to middle age without a serious illness. Anxiety builds within the group as Stephen, Kate, Aileen, Frank, Ellen, Orson, Tanya, and Greg discuss their friend’s symptoms and his lack of diagnosis. They’re afraid he contracted AIDS, which they refer to only as “the disease.” Fourteen characters share news or observations in the first paragraph.
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A positive diagnosis moves the story and the characters’ conversations to a hospital. This begins a rivalry, as each friend tries to stress their own importance to the protagonist. Donny, Ursula, and Ira share the patient’s positive outlook, but Quentin describes feelings of shock at this “truly unexpected blow” (Paragraph 2). Quentin and Ira argue over whether the variations in their friend’s reported outlook have to do with the guests or with the gifts that each person brings to his room. While she reassures Quentin, Kate resolves not to bring flowers, which may be depressing. Instead, at Quentin’s suggestion, she promises to bring chocolate, licorice, and jelly beans.
As the patient’s 21-day hospital stay continues, the friends discuss their visits, encouraging each other to see him every day and reassuring one another that visiting the protagonist poses no threat to their own health. Kate says it isn’t “like the old days,” and Hilda adds that AIDS patients aren’t “even segregated in the hospital anymore” (Paragraph 3). The group turns on Aileen, who they believe should visit more often. They determine that she is jealous of the patient’s attention and has an unrequited crush on him. By comparison, Donny and Victor remember the man’s relationship with a woman named Nora.
Stephen takes the lead in staying informed by reading news and medical journals; he also questions his friend’s doctor. Victor expresses concern over the amount of chocolate the patient eats. The doctor’s response that “if chocolate made him feel better she saw no harm in it” alarms the group. Max, Xavier, and Hilda all fear the doctors have no idea how to treat their friend and have given up hope. Lewis and Betsy discuss the general anxiety caused by the epidemic and the entire group’s fear of more bad news. Under the pretense of bringing some of the man’s things to the hospital, Jan “tour[s] the swank of his bachelor lair” (Paragraph 4). The friends remember a lover who stole several pieces of art from the penthouse and how easily the patient let it all go. Kate cries because they are “talking about him in a retrospective mode” (Paragraph 4).
The hospital stay continues, and many of the speakers find reasons to visit their friend less frequently. Robert and Ursula reason that he wants some time alone, and Donny, Quentin, and Kate try to interpret his new decision to keep a diary as a sign of his good spirits.
When the protagonist is sent home, Quentin takes up most of the narrative space, appointing himself caretaker. Quentin moves in, cooks, manages his friend’s social engagements, answers the phone, and keeps his friend’s oppressive mother at bay. The group continues to diagnose his symptoms and condition: Kate notes his optimism and appetite, and Orson and Stephen encourage him to “keep in shape” (Paragraph 7). Some friends suggest alternative therapies like macrobiotic diets and visualization therapy, and many pay close attention to his diet.
After he is accepted into a drug trial, the friends begin advocating for a more positive mindset. They discuss “living with a disease” and the importance of naming the disease (Paragraph 8), and they congratulate themselves on their own open-mindedness and support. Yvonne, who is from London, says, “I’m impressed by how cool and rational you all are,” and commends their “utopia of friendship” (Paragraph 8). But while Tanya and Jan congratulate themselves on their ability to cope, Quentin challenges them, saying, “You know you’re not going to come down with the disease” (Paragraph 8). He argues that Jan’s experiences are not the same as his—or those of Lewis, Frank, Paolo, and Max; as gay and bisexual men, they grow “more and more frightened” (Paragraph 8).
The protagonist’s health stabilizes, but his friends continue to worry and feel stress: They are glad he’s gained weight but don’t know how to respond honestly when he asks them how he looks. They disagree on how he feels about visitors—or the lack thereof—and whether they should share the news of the deaths of acquaintances abroad. Animosity grows among the friends, who voice their frustration in parenthetical asides. The group also becomes critical of their friend’s life choices. Kate recalls “sighing, a brief exchange she’d insisted on having as long as two years ago” when she asked if he was “being careful” (Paragraph 11); he responded that “sex is too important,” and “if I get [AIDS], well, I get it” (Paragraph 11). Betsy suggests that he must feel “foolish now” for having taken risks, but Lewis rebukes her, reminding her that it takes only a single exposure to contract the disease.
While the protagonist’s condition continues unchanged, Max is diagnosed with AIDS and rapidly deteriorates. His friends hide Max’s condition from the patient, but their visits become more and more infrequent. The social feuds they set aside when the protagonist was diagnosed resurface, and the group no longer operates with its previous cohesion.
When the friend is hospitalized again, the narrative briefly changes to first person, allowing him to speak instead of having his comments filtered through other characters. He contrasts the fear he felt when he was at home, where he feared dying, with the fear he feels now in the hospital, which both “tears” him apart and “squeezes” him together. Describing the exhilarating effects of being afraid, he says, “Calamity is an amazing high, too” (Paragraph 13).
His friends respond differently when they hear he is hospitalized again; some cry, but others do not. Hilda does not cry; instead, she shares that her elderly aunt is also dying of AIDS, having contracted it from a transfusion several years earlier. This hospital stay is different from the first one: Quentin controls who can visit and when, and the friends can no longer feign cheerful indifference to the disease. At the end of the story, Ursula, Quentin, and Stephen contrast written and visual art. Visual media cannot convey the nuance captured by the word “still” in the phrase “he’s still alive” (Paragraph 14), but the characters use language to articulate that their friend continues to live despite signs of decay.
By Susan Sontag