Analysis of Susan Sontag’s "The Way We Live Now". A Lethal Disease Affecting People’s Lives

Term Paper, 2018

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Synopsis of “The Way We Live Now"
3. Historical Context
3.1. Sexual Liberation in the 1960s/70s
3.2. AIDS in the 1980s

4. Characters
4.1. The AIDS Patient
4.1.1. Cognitive Escapism
4.1.2. Stress Management
4.1.3. Avoiding Getting Tested
4.2. Friends and Acquaintances
4.2.1. Forming a Collective Identity
4.2.2. The Way They Live Now
4.2.3. State of Denial
4.2.4. Anticipatory Grief

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography
6.1. Primary Source
6.2. Secondary Sources

1. Introduction

“Well, everybody is worried about everybody now, said Betsy, that seems to be the way we live, the way we live now” (Sontag 4). This quote from Susan Sontag’s short story “The Way We Live Now” is central to understanding what the story is about. Although it tells of an unnamed man’s struggle with being diagnosed with AIDS, it is more about his 26 friends, who provide insight into life during the AIDS crisis in America. The focus of this seminar paper shall, therefore, be on HIV-negative people and their living circumstances in the era of AIDS. The research question, which will be investigated, is: How does AIDS affect HIV-negative characters in Susan Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now”? The thesis statement goes as follows: The HIV-negative characters’ reactions to being faced with AIDS are expressed in a vast range of behavioral patterns, such as cognitive escapism, methods of stress management, avoidance of HIV-tests, development of HIV-negative identities, collective fear, states of denial and anticipatory grief.

First of all, the plot of “The Way We Live Now” will be introduced shortly. In order to get a better grasp of what the situation in the U.S. looked like at the time the story is set, an overview of the historical context will be given. The sexual liberation in the 1960s/70s and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s will be discussed. The information used was mainly taken from the website Glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, which provides an impressive range of articles targeting AIDS and its impacts on society. Detailed information on the course of the pandemic were taken from websites which dedicate themselves to educational work on the topic AIDS, e.g. AVERT, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and

The main part of this seminar paper will focus on the characters of the short story. They were divided into two camps – the healthy and the sick. The first camp is represented by the unnamed man, who eventually falls ill. His behavior preceding the AIDS-diagnosis will be examined. The man’s reactions to being confronted with the fear of being infected include cognitive escapism, methods of stress management and avoidance of HIV-tests. The article “Effects of disengagement coping with HIV risk on unprotected sex among HIV-Negative gay men in New York City” provided a very valuable insight into the nature of risky sexual practices among gay men in the face of AIDS. In HIV/AIDS: Loss, Grief, Challenge, and Hope, Mary O’Donnell comes up with several methods to reduce to stress of possibly being infected with HIV. The method of implementing a healthy lifestyle was of special interest for this seminar paper. In her book, she also discusses the reluctance to get tested for HIV antibodies.

The second camp is represented by the 26 friends and acquaintances who represent the HIV-negative society, which is nevertheless affected by the pandemic. Their reactions to the prevalence of AIDS are expressed through the development of HIV-negative identities, collective fear, states of denial and anticipatory grief. In HIV-NEGATIVE: How the Uninfected Are Affected by AIDS, William I. Johnston dedicates 332 pages to the effects that AIDS has on HIV-negative people. At the time of its publication, it was the first book ever written on the psychological and emotional landscape of the uninfected. Useful information on the sentiment of fear during the AIDS crisis was taken from Jeffrey Weeks’ essay “Love in a Cold Climate”, in which he describes how society perceived the lethal pandemic and which stigmata were and still are inherent to it. When it comes to the state of denial as a reaction to learning that a beloved one has contracted AIDS, a closer look was taken at Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘ five stages of grief. Another form of grief, namely anticipatory grief, was investigated with the aid of Mary O’Donnell’s theories of grieving.

The seminar paper will end with a summarizing conclusion, in which the research question will be answered.

2. Synopsis of “The Way We Live Now"

The story is set in the New York of the 1980’s when the AIDS pandemic was spreading like wildfire and not much was understood about it yet. It is narrated exclusively through dialogue and it tells of an unnamed man’s struggle with being diagnosed HIV-positive. 26 friends and acquaintances talk about how to support the suffering friend and also share their feelings of anxiety, confusion, fear and panic. The title of the short story, “The Way We Live Now”, refers to the circle of friends talking about how the patient’s illness has changed their lives and the relationships between them. The disease is never outright identified, but it is inferred. Also, the patient himself never rises to speak; his struggle and the progression of the disease are conveyed merely through the conversations of his numerous friends.

After the patient’s initial hospitalization, his health eventually improves, and he is able to return home with the help of one of his friends, who volunteers to take care of him. In the course of the story, the group of friends learns of acquaintances who have also contracted AIDS, one of them being a seventy-five-year old aunt who has fallen ill because of a contaminated blood transfusion, and another victim being an immediate friend of the group. All this is kept secret from the unnamed main character, for the friends do not want him to feel uneasy. In fact, the patient’s health appears to be relatively stable for a while, but, eventually, he needs to be hospitalized again. The story closes with the words “[h]e’s still alive” (Sontag 14), leaving the reader unsure of whether the man will survive or not.

3. Historical Context

3.1. Sexual Liberation in the 1960s/70s

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s changed American sexual behaviors and attitudes significantly. It was the time of rock music, drug glorification, celebration of public nudity and sexual liberation, which was in particular important for the revolution. There were three main pillars to the sexual revolution: increased acceptance of casual sexual intercourse between unmarried adults, engagement in sexual activities at an earlier age leading to an increase in sexual experimentation before entering long-term monogamous relationships, and the lessening of the stigma attached to divorce, which was reflected in the growing number of divorces. (Escoffier)

The women’s movement represented another key element of the sexual revolution. Central to this movement was the fight for economic and sexual independence, as women were facing income inequalities, limited employment opportunities and a stronghold of male domination. Many women were being patronized by their husbands which led to them increasingly perceiving marriage as a straightjacket restricting them from pursuing their goals. However, also men were fed up with the square institution of marriage; people were beginning to explore new sexual territories and creating new concepts of relationships: swinging, open marriage, mate swapping, and many more. (Escoffier)

Another key component of the sexual revolution of the 70s was gay liberation. When talking about gay liberation in the USA, the so-called Stonewall Riots of 1969 immediately come to mind, where a routine police raid on a gay bar in Greenwich Village turned into riots lasting for days. The exhibited solidarity inspired many gay men and women to stand up for their rights and fight discrimination. The Stonewall Riots were a crucial event in the history of the gay rights movement and they paved the way for gay liberation. In 1973, an important goal was accomplished when homosexuality was finally removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses. (Eaklor) Classifying homosexuality as a mental disease had led many homosexuals to regard their own sexuality as something shameful and sick. Among gay men, the notion of their own sexuality even reached a state of internalized homophobia, which determined their self-concept and caused complex psychological conflicts when engaging in sex. (Yi, Huso, et al. 205)

However, this newly gained sexual freedom led to attitudes which could be considered promiscuous; unsafe sex and casual affairs became common practices in the gay community. The gay novelist Brad Gooch referred to the 1970s as the “Golden Age of Promiscuity” (Escoffier). Bathhouses and sex clubs were established and became popular venues for seeking easy sex. Those establishments provided safe spaces where homosexuals did not have to hide anymore (Escoffier), and they enjoyed being accepted, as they were now part of an openminded community, which did not have to operate secretively. It was a time of flourishing optimism and enjoyment, but this sentiment was not to last long. ("The Way We Live Now")

3.2. AIDS in the 1980s

In 1981, reports of a mysterious and deadly disease affecting homosexual men first hit the mainstream press. By the end of the year, 270 cases of severe immune deficiency among gay men had been reported. The following year, the cause of the immune deficiency, which was sexual, was given a name, namely gay-related immune deficiency, GRID, but not long after, it was reported that also drug users, hemophiliacs and Haitians were at high risk for contracting AIDS. Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started to refer to the disease as AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. (“History of HIV and AIDS overview”) But still, homosexuals had to deal with a massive backlash against them. AIDS was commonly referred to as the gay plague and the religious right used the pandemic to further their homophobic campaigns declaring the disease as a godly punishment for not being heterosexual (Ruel/Campbell 2175).

In 1983, cases of straight, married women being contracted with the disease were reported, indicating that AIDS could also be passed on via heterosexual intercourse, and also cases of children hit the press. This led to public hysteria, assuming that the virus could be transmitted via casual contact. By September, all major routes of transmission were identified by the CDC and transmission via casual contact, food, water, air or surfaces was ruled out. (“History of HIV and AIDS overview”)

In 1984, French and American teams of doctors discovered the cause of AIDS, a virus called HTLV-III/LAV, which should later on be changed to HIV (“History of HIV and AIDS overview”). More than 30% of the reported cases in the USA were in New York City, and, by 1987, one in 25 homosexual men in Greenwich Village, which had been the thriving center of gay liberation, was afflicted with AIDS ("The Way We Live Now"). That year, the FDA approved the first antiretroviral drug, AZT, as treatment for HIV, which was a stop gap, since the virus quickly became resistant to the treatment (Park). According to the WHO, 47,022 Americans were reported to have AIDS by the end of 1987. The following year, the groundwork for a nationwide HIV and AIDS care system was laid in the USA. (“History of HIV and AIDS overview”) Millions of dollars were invested in HIV care and treatment initiatives. However, by the end of the 1980s, the number of reported AIDS cases had risen to a total of 100,000. (“A Timeline of HIV and AIDS”)

4. Characters

In the following chapter, it will be discussed how the characters’ lives change in the face of the American AIDS crisis. Those characters are not to be considered individuals. In fact, they have to be seen more abstractly, as the representation of the two camps in the age of the pandemic – the healthy and the sick, the survivors and the victims.

4.1. The AIDS Patient

The reader never learns the AIDS patient’s name. The limited information that is disclosed about the victim solely derives from his friends’ conversations. The man is a sophisticated urbanite and an art collector who lives in the penthouse of a luxurious apartment building in Manhattan. In the beginning of the story, he is feeling weaker and weaker, which, after some initial reluctance, induces him to see a doctor. Although the name of the disease the man is diagnosed with is not mentioned, all evidence is pointing towards AIDS.

4.1.1. Cognitive Escapism

Living in the age of AIDS meant a lot of stress for homo- and bisexuals. They belonged to a group which was identified to be at elevated risk for contracting an incurable disease. While being extra careful regarding intercourse would be the most logical reaction, the patient in “The Way We Live Now” developed disengagement coping mechanisms in order to deal with the stress of possibly being infected with HIV. Having to deal with a high stress level can lead to positive reinterpretation of sexual risk practices and it is inferred that the unnamed man lived a risky lifestyle before his diagnosis. (Yi et al. 205-6)

[A]nd Kate recalled, sighing, a brief exchange she’d insisted on having as long as two years ago, huddling on a banquette […] and toking up for their next foray onto the dance floor: she’d said hesitantly, for it felt foolish asking a prince of debauchery to, well, take it easy, and she wasn’t keen on playing big sister, a role […] he inspired in many women, are you being careful, honey, you know what I mean. And he replied, Kate went on, no, I’m not, listen, I can’t, I just can’t, sex is too important to me, always has been, […] and if I get it, well, I get it. (Sontag 11)

This passage describes his lifestyle in a nutshell. His behavioral patterns – using drugs and having unprotected sex with men and women – correspond with the characteristics of cognitive escapism (Yi et al. 205-6). Yi et al. describe this behavior as “cognitively escaping self-awareness of HIV risk” (206). The man perceives too much stress and chooses disengagement from the possibility of contracting HIV over engagement coping strategies – committing to a healthy lifestyle and safer sex – which require carefulness and effort.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Analysis of Susan Sontag’s "The Way We Live Now". A Lethal Disease Affecting People’s Lives
University of Innsbruck
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Susan Sontag, HIV, AIDS, short story, literature, New York, the way we live now, New Yorker
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2018, Analysis of Susan Sontag’s "The Way We Live Now". A Lethal Disease Affecting People’s Lives, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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