The play Unity (1918) by Kevin Kerr examines the effects of the devastating Spanish Influenza on the small town of Unity, Saskatchewan. The Spanish Influenza struck the world just after the end of the First World War, and caused more casualties than the war itself…
The evolution of the disease itself (and, indeed, any disease) unfolds in much the same way as the action in Unity, with people going through biological and psychological reactions to the illness, as the people in the town react to the disease itself. The purpose of this paper is to explore the similarities between the way a disease evolves and how the community evolved in reaction to Spanish Influenza.
The community of Unity went through several changes from paranoia and fear to blame and devastation, as a disease would. The action in Unity relies on an infection metaphor in a number of ways. In the play, Kerr uses the small town itself as a representation of the Canadian national front with the influenza itself representing a German invader, as in the just-ended First World War. The fear of the disease is similar to the fear of the enemy, an interesting topic considering the historical setting of the play. Biologically, most people have a fear of becoming ill, and a further fear of death. The Spanish Influenza was likely to kill because of its virulent nature, and the fear of death here can be found in both the fear of invasion and the fear of disease. It is interesting that Kerr here combines the infection metaphor with the historical context to add further depth to the play. Infection and war have very similar ways of manifesting themselves, usually becoming worse without action. The war is a useful backdrop for an infection metaphor, because it highlights the similarities between the two. In Unity the inhabitants of the community fight against the infection in very militaristic terms, using expressions such as ‘take up arms’. In the medical world, similar lexis is used when considering how to combat disease; we ‘fight’ an infection, and ‘kill’ a fever. As an illness manifests itself, medicine becomes more useful to ‘combat’ the disease, and as a war starts, it is necessary to ‘combat’ the enemy. Kerr uses these similarities very wisely, particularly by bringing in a third concept of ‘combat’ centred on the town of Unity and their attitudes towards the Spanish flu, intricately using all three concepts in a similar way. The town of Unity, before the disease hits, has a fear and a paranoia of the Spanish Influenza, even going to such lengths to ban trains from stopping in the town and going to extreme lengths to prevent the spread. This can be compared to the more modern paranoia about the AIDS epidemic. In this case, many people that have no connection to the disease have a fear of catching it, which is a similar reaction to many diseases. Before Unity has any direct contact with the Spanish flu, extreme measures are taken to prevent the disease. There are a number of actions by governments worldwide to instil fear about the AIDS epidemic, too, which is metaphorically very similar to the actions taken by the town of Unity in reaction to the Spanish flu. It has been shown that fear of disease is one of the most common fears surrounding an epidemic (Mast, 1998), so Kerr uses this similarity wisely and accurately. The character Beatrice explains this best; ‘The town has been quarantined. Not because of illness but because of fear of illness’. The first member of the community to fall ill is Michael, a non-local. The treatment of Michael completely changes when Unity finds out he has the Spanish flu, he is treated like ‘ ...
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