Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Colby Access Only)


Colby College. English Dept.


Laurie Osborne

Second Advisor

Elizabeth Sagaser


No disease throughout history has had the same cultural impact of tuberculosis. At the height of the tuberculosis epidemic in 19th century, as many as one in four individuals died from the disease. Yet despite its high mortality, tuberculosis came to be associated with femininity, delicacy, and even intelligence. In fact, tuberculosis was once thought to enhance beauty, create creative genius, and enhance sexual desire. The honorable and heroic consumptive courtesan, the epitome of sexual seduction, appeared throughout literature of the 19th century as an idealized female figure. However, by the mid nineteenth century in Europe, increasing medical discourse concerning disease, illness, and the spread of contagion began to call to question the romanticized assumptions surrounding tuberculosis and the courtesan. During this moment of cultural confusion, Alexandre Dumas penned La Dame Aux Camellias, a novel that depicts the consumptive courtesan as both an irresistibly beautiful seductress and a simultaneous carrier of physical and moral contagion. The seemingly contradictory images within the text expose the consumptive courtesan as a potential agent for disease. This emphasis on consumption and the courtesan as potentially threatening reveals a larger cultural shift from spiritual to medical discourse, marking a moment of great social change in European culture.


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Keywords: La Dame Aux Camellias, Alexandre Dumas, tuberculosis, contagion, consumption, courtesan, 19th century France, prostitution, disease, medical discourse, medicine

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