If you're the star of a Victorian Novel or an opera which could have been adapted from one, you're preferably blonde and blue-eyed, with an alabaster brow and feet light as the entrance of Spring. So pure are your thoughts that you faint at even the sight of blood, and have little stomach for gory tales.
You're also dying of a disease which will probably be called "consumption" if it isn't The Disease That Shall Not Be Named. Fortunately, this ailment has no ill effects other than adding a poignant cough to the appropriate sentences, and making your eyes even brighter, your skin even paler, and your complexion even more striking. In operas, it won't prevent you from singing at least one aria in your death scene. note What was actually called "consumption" in the Victorian era is known as tuberculosis today, and its Real Life effects are not nearly as glamorous as Victorian Novel Disease makes them out to be.
Standards of beauty are a funny thing. When the lower class is poor and thin and haggard looking, the nobility commissions portraits depicting themselves as Rubenesque, with rosy cheeks and dimpled arms, to show off their indulgent dining habits as a way of immortalizing their wealth. However, when the economy stabilizes and the poor are able to be plump and rosy-cheeked, then the standard of beauty... shrinks. Women become diminutive, frail, wan little things, prone to fainting spells and headaches. Rather like Dr. Seuss's star-bellied Sneetches, the "haves" set as the height of desirability whatever quality the "have-nots" cannot achieve.
The epitome of the fragile, delicate woman is the Ill Girl — Always Female, always innocent and pure, always dying of some disease that is very slow at actually killing her. As she lies enthroned in her beautiful sickroom, she and everyone around her will spend their time poignantly musing on her death. Her proximity to the eternal will give her immense wisdom and insight, and she will be a neverending source of advice and comfort to her caretakers. And when she finally slips the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God, those around her will smile through their tears and rejoice that her pure soul is now freed from this dirty world.
In modern times, a virulent strain has developed as the Soap Opera Disease. The Littlest Cancer Patient is usually more upbeat about their impending death.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
Parodied and subverted in Count Cain, wherein several vain girls are tricked into ingesting various parasites to get that lovely white pallor.
Rin's mother in Kodomo No Jikan. Though they actually stated she had lung cancer.
A staple of Sidhemail's work, especially I Am Stretched on Your Grave.
1970 weeper Love Story offers an infamous example in Ali McGraw, whose terminal illness just makes her prettier.
Moulin Rouge! is based off of The Lady of the Camellias (see below in Literature.)
Dark Victory offers a peculiar example. This trope is initially averted, as Bette Davis suffers from relatively accurate symptoms of brain cancer—dizziness, headaches, blurred vision, numbness. However, it's played utterly straight after her brain surgery, which fails to cure her but somehow leaves her with a form of brain cancer that has her feeling healthy and vigorous and looking lovely until an attack of blindness that signifies her death is mere hours away.
Lampshaded in Heavenly Creatures. Juliet had tuberculosis as a child and suffers a relapse as a teen, but is aware enough of this trope to note, "All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It's all frightfully romantic."
In the 1970s, a series of European films played with this trope, one of which was The Last Snowsof Spring. The afflicted were always children or young teens, who run around quite happily and healthily, notwithstanding the occasional Deadly Nosebleed or fainting fit, before dying prettily in a parent's arms. In one film (the title of which escapes this troper) the teenage boy who was dying even managed to complete a swimming race before dropping dead. And yes, this troper did cry...
Marguerite aka The Lady of the Camellias (from the novel by Alexandre Dumasfils) is dying of a Victorian Novel Disease. Because nothing, not even the deterioration of one's lungs, should stand in the way of one's career as a successful courtesan!
In Anne of the Island, Anne's childhood playmate Ruby Gillis is revealed to be dying of "galloping consumption" (acute tuberculosis of the lungs). May be considered a play on this, as in childhood Ruby, instead of fainting gracefully at the scene of a drama, would usually just go into hysterics. However, it's still a Tear Jerker. Especially since Ruby, having been rather shallow all her life, is terrified to die and leave everything she's always considered important behind her. While she says she "doesn't doubt but that she'll go to Heaven", she's afraid because frivolity is all she's ever known, and now she's facing the unknown rather unprepared for it.
Agatha Christie describes in her autobiography how her elderly grandmother tried to make Agatha seem more interesting to suitors by speaking of how frail and sickly she was. This resulted in the suitors (being 20th century boys) becoming very concerned, and Agatha very annoyed, since she was as healthy as anything.
A gender-flipped example in Wuthering Heights where it is Edgar who dies of a wasting illness.
Actually there is a lot of this kind of thing in Wuthering Heights- 'brain fever' in particular. Emily Bronte appears to flipflop on whether brain fever is caused by intense emotion (when Cathy seems to be suffering more from hypermanic episodes), or by getting soaking wet or actually contagious. People get it all three ways, and it kills at least three people.
In Boris Vian's ''L'écume des jours'', Chloé dies from a water lily growing in her lungs (yes, it's a weird novel), the effects of which, besides a cough, are largely to make her beautifully pale and languid.
Sherlock Holmes contains a notable subversion. Evidently, the only thing more wringing than the plot development where someone turns out to have consumption is the plot development where it turns out no one has consumption.
Parodied, or Played for Drama, in Dracula, depending on how you read the novel. In classic literature, tuberculosis was used as a stock disease. It was rarely referred to by name, but the symptoms were always the same: a young lady would become pale and sleepy, and a blush would show on her sickly face. When Van Helsing refuses to name Lucy's illness, the reader of the era would have assumed that she has tuberculosis. But actually, Van Helsing realizes that she's becoming a vampire.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has three consumptives: Johnny's brother Andy, neighbor Henny Gaddis, and Sergeant McShane's wife, Molly. Henny is the only one Francie actually meets, and she can't believe he's dying because he has such bright eyes and rosy cheeks.
In Lois McMaster Bujold's Komarr, Ekaterin mentions that when girls pretend it's the Time of Isolation, they always leave out all the bits about dying in childbirth, or of dysentery, and if they're every dying romantically of a disease, "it's always an illness that makes you interestingly pale and everyone sorry and doesn't involve losing bowel control."
Subverted by Lady Pole in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Superficially she would have appeared to have something like TB (exhaustion, languor, weight-loss, depression etc.) but in fact she was being harrassed (i.e. slowly tortured to death by being forced to dance, night after night) by faeries. Quite a few people were seriously worried about her health but her mother refused to hear a word of it.
This is precisely what Ill Boy Peter dies of in the treacly 1982 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross novel Remember The Secret. He's even taken to heaven by angels.
In Susann Cokal's Breath and Bones, Famke suffers from TB in a curious way - she coughs a lot, then coughs blood a lot, then gets treatment, and then it eventually returns...though it is not what actually kills her in the end.
Averted in Anthony Trollope's 47 novels in which the heroine is generally quite healthy and suffers only in agonizing over the choice of a beau. To be fair, however, Trollope wrote mostly about the middle classes while Dickens wrote mostly about the lower classes.
Trollope doesn't avoid death, it's just that his characters die realistically and unsentimentally - when they die on stage.
Averted—or perhaps subverted— in Betty MacDonald's The Plague & I which shows us what it was really like in a TB sanitarium.
Discussed in Sense and Sensibility — overly romantic, teenage Marianne Dashwood initially considers the thirty-five-year-old Colonel Brandon to be decrepit, citing his complaints of joint pain on a rainy day. Her more practical sister Elinor remarks that if he'd been flushed and hollow-eyed from a life-threatening fever, Marianne would have found that attractive.
One one-scene character in Sharpe's Regiment is a streetwalker by the name of Belle, who's got terminal tuberculosis. Sharpe spots the symptoms straight away.
The BBC writers inserted examples into Lark Rise To Candleford. The Post Office inspector takes sick after storming out of the post office having caught Dorcas in the act of providing Irish labourers with out-of-hours service. He faints, falls off his horse and is rescued, brought into the post office in a delirium burbling about his lost love Helena (or Eleanor, it's not clear which). A similar thing happens with Thomas Brown, played for laughs, when he falls off his bicycle in high dudgeon over Miss Ellison's treatment of her brother, and Cabbage Patterson's wife takes to her bed and allows the constable to woo Pearl Pratt. None of these episodes are in the original book.
Rent is a modernization of La Bohème that substitutes AIDS for tuberculosis.
Verdi's opera La Traviata was loosely based on The Lady of the Camellias, so it's no surprise that lead female Violetta Valery suffers from this kind of thing.
Another operatic use of this trope is Mimi in La Bohème. She faints immediately after first entering Rodolfo's apartment; he sees her pale complexion and falls in love. At the end, not surprisingly, she dies from consumption/tuberculosis.
The operatic version of this trope was mocked by Anna Russell in "Anaemia's Death Scene." Anaemia claims to have no breath and no strength, but her singing defies that description.
In The Saint of Bleecker Street, Annina dies of a disease that makes her face look increasingly pale and otherworldly. Her visible wounds are supposed to be the stigmata.
In Charles Hubert Millevoye's highly popular early-nineteenth-century poem "La chute des feuilles" ("The Falling of the Leaves"), in which a sick young man wanders mournfully in the woods musing on his upcoming death, the illness is not specified, but is likened to a flower withered by a cold blast of wind.
A GURPS technology supplement for steampunk campaigns has controlled inoculation with tuberculosis as a method for rich women to look suitably wan and feeble and hence, attractive. The squick is intentional.
In Next Town Over, Markus thinks that Vane Black looks faint and pale and might have consumption. Given her previously revealed antics, this is improbable.
An episode of Drawn Together had Princess Clara contract "the consumption".
TB was responsible for around 1-out-of-5 deaths in late 1800s UK, mostly affecting the urban poor.
The real Marie Duplessis died of tuberculosis, and her last two lovers stayed with her til the end.
It was considered fashionable and romantic for young women to seem sickly. To achieve this, many turned to morphine.
It has been commented that tuberculosis lent itself for literary treatment in the 19th century because its symptoms are such that they can be aestheticized, while this is not so easy with other great killers of that era like typhoid or especially cholera, where victims die of dehydration as their bodily fluids unappetizingly leave the body via the ... end of the digestive tract. Although these are mentioned in a few later literary works, such as typhoid in Buddenbrooks and cholera in Love In The Time Of Cholera and The Horseman on the Roof (the latter contains horrifying descriptions in the novel, prettied up a lot in the movie version!).
Many examples of the Goth fashion aesthetic can be interpreted as a person who is very much alive trying to look like someone who is dying of Victorian Novel Disease.
Also, what is commonly thought of as the Emo look which is related.