Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


Andre Aciman

Committee Members

Elizabeth Beaujour

Rachel Brownstein

Monica Calabritto

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Literature in English, British Isles | Medical Humanities | Mental Disorders | Psychological Phenomena and Processes | Russian Literature


lovesickness, psychosomatic illness, medical humanities, russian literature, british literature, history of medicine, psychoanalysis


Throughout Western medical history, unconsummated, unreturned, or otherwise failed love was believed to generate a disorder of the mind and body that manifested in physiological and psychological symptoms. This study traces the medical and literary history of lovesickness from antiquity through the 19th century, emphasizing significant moments in the development of the medical discourse on love. The project is part of the recent academic focus on the intersection between the humanities and the medical sciences, and it situates literary texts in concurrent medical and philosophical debates on afflictions of the psyche. By contextualizing the fictional works within the scientific theories that informed them, this study argues that the lovesick patient was a point of contact between literature and medicine and that literary authors participated in their own way in medicine’s quest to understand love’s complex psychological processes and to explain the relationship between those processes and bodily functions.

This study aims to uncover the ways in which literary works reflected, diverged from, and anticipated scientific thought on the psyche and its afflictions, synthesizing three bodies of knowledge that rarely comment on one another: the history of medical science, the literary representation of disappointed love, and Freudian psychoanalysis. Questioning the tendency of medical science after the Scientific Revolution to conceive of lovesickness as a somatic malfunction that excluded the involvement of the rational faculty, literary works by Racine, Richardson, Austen, Gogol, Turgenev, and Dickens dramatized cases of lovesickness that resisted simple physiological etiologies. These accounts portrayed the lovesick subject as an active agent in constructing desire and as a willing sufferer of its effects. They explored psychical processes that were troubling for the concurrent medical model and addressed its limitations by uncovering psychological etiologies that anticipated future scientific discourse. Literature illustrated that love suffering may serve other needs of the psyche, such as to negotiate social norms that restrict the communication of feeling, to exercise a perverse power over the beloved, or to confront and mitigate early traumatic experiences, in a way that would not be described by medical science until the emergence of psychoanalytic frameworks.