At first glance, it might seem odd that a public health journal would initiate a section about arts and humanities. Public health, after all, deals with populations; it eschews the individual except as it forms one of a group. The creative arts, however, deal almost exclusively with individuals. Literature, in particular, always has a protagonist, and the protagonist is never ‘alcoholics with pancreatitis,’ ‘female prisoners receiving hepatitis B vaccination,’ ‘South Asians with cardiovascular risk factors,’ ‘UK asylum seekers with infectious disease,’ or ‘teenaged asthmatic smokers.’1 A protagonist is an individual.
Madame Bovary, Huckleberry Finn, Jay Gatsby, Pip, Hamlet, Odysseus, Harry Potter, Holden Caulfield, Captain Ahab, Anna Karenina, Sherlock Holmes and Jean Valjean are individuals, not populations. What happens to each is entirely unique. There is nothing in their characters that is ‘applicable’ to larger populations; they define individualism. Our pleasure in reading these novels is the exhilaration of being swept up in the singular journeys of these remarkable individuals. More
In search of gripping plots and compelling characters, writers have always pilfered from reality. Plagues and epidemics—with their threats of mass destruction, overtones of divine retribution, nefarious villains and innocent victims—have particularly enthralled novelists. More