Identities of aging in literature reflect the delicate balancing acts faced in old age. Older adults strive to remain active, healthy, and engaged in life. At the same time they draw upon a rich storehouse of memories, continue to face unresolved conflicts relating to families and other relationships, and are constantly challenged by loss, grief, and death.
Autobiography as a Literary Genre
The unfolding of one’s identity through time is often expressed in old age in the form of autobiography. May Sarton’s poetry and extensive journals exemplify the qualities of introspection, creativity, and self-awareness available in old age. In her poem “Gestalt at Sixty,” she charts the patterns of her existence that have contributed to her development. In “On a Winter Night,” she meditates on the aging process and finds images of clarity, growth, seasoning, and regeneration to overcome the anxieties and tensions of old age. Sarton’s journals are a record of her aging and her struggle to resolve tensions between her need for solitude and her obligations to society as a writer. Representative works include Journal of a Solitude (1973), At Seventy (1984), and After the Stroke (1988). Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-ninth Year (1992) summarizes the indignities of chronic illness, frailty, loneliness, loss, and recurring bouts of depression that dominate her old age. She feels a loss of identity—she feels that the Sarton people have known has become a stranger, someone who is ill and frail. Her next journal, Encore (1993), shows her rejuvenated and restored to her former strength as she engages life.
Other significant autobiographical works include Alan Olmstead’s Threshold: The First Days of Retirement (1975), Elizabeth Gray Vining’s Being Seventy: The Measure of a Year (1978), and Florida Scott-Maxwell’s The Measure of My Days (1968). The former texts emphasize the pitfalls, pleasures, and eventual fulfillment experienced in retirement. Scott-Maxwell explores issues of aging and identity with subtlety and depth. She maintains that the task of old age is to add to and clarify one’s sense of self, whatever the cost.
Life in Review
Older adults find meaning in their lives and gain insights into their identities through the processes of reminiscence and life review. Identity in old age is forged through self-reflection, memory, and integration. Such concerns may be addressed by older adults in autobiographical works, as noted above. Similar concerns may be addressed as well in fictional works. In some cases elderly characters fail to complete a life review that provides a sense of perspective. For example, the old woman in Katherine Anne Porter’s story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” rehashes on her deathbed the awful events that led to her life of isolation and loneliness. She dies with the effects of her early loss unresolved in her memory. Willy Loman’s life review, in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949), leads to a stripping-away of the lies that have been the basis of his character and identity. He is exposed as lonely, vulnerable, and a dreamer. He dies without resolving important personal and family conflicts.
Other characters in fiction use life review to gain insights into their identities. The retired literary agent in Wallace Stegner’s novel The Spectator Bird (1976) faces feelings of guilt over the death of his adult son and uncertainties over an unresolved relationship with a woman he met on a trip twenty years earlier. He exorcises these demons from the past only by confronting his memories and remaining receptive to his supportive and loving wife. Similar ghosts from the past haunt Hagar Shipley, in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1964). At ninety, Hagar maintains a grudge against God because her favorite son died in a tragic accident. By confronting her past, Hagar begins to learn that her unforgiving character, and her inability to acknowledge the love of key people in her life, have kept her alienated and isolated. A similar movement toward integration through life review is experienced by Eva, the main character in Tillie Olsen’s...
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