Course Syllabus

Narrative Medicine

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Course Description

How can literature help us understand illnesses? In this course, we will engage with a series of questions that elucidate the power of storytelling within the discourses of health and disease. Combining close readings of various types of fiction (novels, films, short stories, (new) media, poems), clinical case studies, and memoirs with hands-on meetings with doctors, authors, therapists, and artists, we will explore narrative medicine as part of the new interdisciplinary field Medical Humanities. You will gain insight into how literature can help us comprehend experiences of suffering and illness, approach the bio-ethical implications of treatment and understand the complex relationship between patient and practitioner.

Narrative Medicine integrates disciplinary objectives from the sciences and the arts and is designed for both the student going into health care and the literature student interested in illness motifs and themes related to body and identity; misfitting and disability. 

Together, we will wonder about the connection between narrative and illness and attempt to answer questions such as: What is narrative and how does it relate to us humans? How does narrative shape our understanding of disease and treatment, normality and disability as well as our culture's attitude towards these issues? What role can narrative play in both the physician’s training as well as in the patient’s attempt to find meaning or coherence when faced with illness? 

Learning Objectives

By the end of this course you will be able to:

  • Understand how literature can help us comprehend and recognize illnesses and suffering
  • Account for the basic elements of narrative and apply literary methodology to accounts of illness
  • Discuss the bioethical implications related to dealing with body, illness, death etc.
  • Appreciate the complexities of the medical encounter and identify intersubjective issues in the relation between the sick and healthy, the patient and the health care professional

Approach to Teaching

In combination with close reading of illness narratives, this course will include medical encounters with doctors, authors, members of the ethical council, patient associations etc. to give you a holistic understanding of the pathological body. 

Close reading will be the core method of the course. How a story gets told is as important as what gets told - especially when it comes to illness narratives - so we need to pay attention to both content and form.


Birgitte Duelund Pallesen

Cand.mag. in Comparative Literature, University of Copenhagen 2013. BA studies in European Literature, Film and Philosophy, UCL, London, UK. (2009-2017), Gyldendal (2009-14), editor. With DIS since 2015. Also teaching Postcolonial Europe: Narratives, Nationalism, and Race, Sense of Place in European Literature, and Danish Language and Culture.


The following titles are examples of readings, not a complete list.  Readings include (excerpts from):

  • Audre Lorde, Cancer Journals
  • Arthur Frank, The Wounded Storyteller
  • Borges On Blindness
  • Bulgakov A Country Doctor’s Notebook
  • Charlotte Perkins The Yellow Wallpaper
  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick Touching Feeling
  • Galen The Best Physician Is also a Philosopher
  • J.M. Coetzee Slow Man
  • Leo Tolstoy "The Death of Ivan Ilych"
  • Margaret Edson Wit
  • Mary Shelley Frankenstein
  • Paul Ricoeur Oneself as Another
  • Rita Charon Narrative Medicine -honoring stories of illness
  • Rita Charon The Principles and Practice if Narrative Medicine
  • Susan Sontag Illness as Metaphor
  • Sylvia Plath Bell Jar
  • Thomas Mann The Magic Mountain
  • Virginia Woolf “On Being Ill”
  • William Carlos Williams The Doctor Stories

Academic Regulations  

Please make sure to read the Academic Regulations on the DIS website. There you will find regulations on:


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