Two Literary Syndromes—AWS and OHS

By Maeve Maddox

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Several fictional characters are so memorable that their names have been attached to physical and psychological maladies.

Some of the so-called syndromes can be found in medical sources. Others, like “Bambi Syndrome” and “Peter Pan Syndrome,” are found only in pop culture—at least for the present. Some psychologists suggest that Peter Pan Syndrome may deserve serious study.

What is a syndrome?

The Oxford English Dictionary provides definitions for both the medical and pop culture types of “syndrome”:

1. Pathology. A concurrence of several symptoms in a disease; a set of such concurrent symptoms.

2. In recent use, a characteristic combination of opinions, behavior, etc.; frequently preceded by a qualifying word.

Dozens of syndromes named for literary characters —both medical and pop cultural—exist.

This post will describe two: Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (AWS) and Pickwickian Syndrome (OHS). Both disorders can be found in the medical literature.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome

One of the memorable aspects of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is the way objects change size and shape. The Chesire Cat appears and disappears. The Duchess’s baby turns into a pig. In Looking Glass, the Red Queen becomes a kitten and the White Queen turns into a sheep.

The first example of size distortion occurs when Alice follows the rabbit down the rabbit hole and finds herself in a corridor lined with doors. She drinks from the bottle that says, “DRINK ME.”

…she was now only ten inches high, and her face brightened up at the thought that she was now the right size for going through the little door into that lovely garden.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome is a neurological condition that, in most cases, is related to migraine, but it can also be derived from brain tumors, viruses like Epstein Barr (a member of the herpes virus), or even epilepsy. It causes hallucinations and visual image distortions. This syndrome presents itself more frequently in children and, in some cases, they grow out of it. Because Lewis Carroll is known to have suffered from severe migraines, some writers have speculated that he may have drawn inspiration from his own symptoms.

Pickwickian Syndrome
The literary label for this disorder comes from a character in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. In Chapter Four, Mr. Pickwick is invited to join a picnic party traveling in a carriage. They are going to witness a military display that includes canon fire. The young servant in charge of the picnic hamper is first described sitting on the driver’s seat, thus:

on the box sat a fat and red-faced boy, in a state of somnolency…

Every time thereafter, the boy, who we learn is named “Joe,” exhibits symptoms of the disorder named for the book in which he appears.

“Joe!—damn that boy, he’s gone to sleep again. —Joe, let down the steps.” The fat boy rolled slowly off the box, let down the steps, and held the carriage door invitingly open.

Everybody was excited, except the fat boy, and he slept as soundly as if the roaring of cannon were his ordinary lullaby.

“Joe, Joe!” said the stout gentleman, when the citadel was taken, and the besiegers and besieged sat down to dinner. “Damn that boy, he’s gone to sleep again. Be good enough to pinch him, sir—in the leg, if you please; nothing else wakes him—thank you. Undo the hamper, Joe.”

Pickwickian Syndrome’s official name is obesity hypoventilation syndrome (OHS). It occurs when breathing is inadequate to rid the body of carbon dioxide in someone who is obese. It causes daytime sleepiness, intense headaches, shortness of breath, lethargy, and depression. Left untreated, OHS can even lead to heart failure, sexual dysfunction, hypertension, and even death.

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2 Responses to “Two Literary Syndromes—AWS and OHS”

  • Barbara Youree

    I enjoyed this very much. I did not realize how many medical terms were derived from literature.

  • Madlyn F Springston

    A great reminder of how good literature encourages us to examine human behavior!

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