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Passages Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Sheehy has written a popular book which investigates a new subject and informs and entertains the ordinary reader. Her training as a journalist helps her to avoid the jargon of psychologists. Passages is divided into short, easy-to-read sections. Although each part is clearly labeled, the book does not proceed with rigorous logic; instead, Sheehy informally accumulates related material: the ideas of psychologists, her own ideas and terms, the stories of people to whom she has talked, and a generous and revealing selection of their own words. Some readers may find it hard to discover exactly what years are covered by which “passage.” Passages is sometimes inexact because the specific ages when specific passages occur will vary among different people. The author’s time frame is general: Adults often experience passages at the ages that Sheehy cites—but not always.

Sheehy begins with the working assumption that adult lives progress in stages about five to ten years long. The first passage occurs between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, when aspiring adults leave the stability of home. They do not know what they want, except that they do not want to become like their parents. As they establish separate identities, they often seek security in groups, in causes, or in the love of another person. Some women suffer from timidity and look for a mate who is stronger.

The stability that they achieve is disrupted by the problems of Sheehy’s second passage. Between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-seven, most men and many women enter the “real world” of work and career. They begin with ideals and illusions; they believe that their choices are binding forever. Here Sheehy’s concern with marriage and women’s problems becomes more evident. She finds that to a great extent both men and women marry to obtain stability. Their stability is real for a time, even though many men take their new careers more seriously than their marriages and women who have children turn their attention to the home. As husbands become more sure of themselves, some women lose the independence and confidence that they had before they married. The result is tension.

The third time of passage occurs roughly between the ages of twenty-eight and thirty-four. Both men and women discover that they never can achieve all they had dreamed of in their twenties. Problems between husbands and wives begin when they find that they lead different lives and begin to move apart. His career is progressing; she wants to do more than rear children and cook. Sheehy calls this the “Catch-30”: If she strikes out on her own, he is jealous of her new interests; if she does not, he feels trapped in a stagnant marriage and thinks that she envies him. Many couples divorce. One product of divorce is the Changed Woman: the divorced wife who enjoys her freedom, makes herself over, and takes on new tasks—much to the dismay of her former husband. Couples can weather this storm, however, and emerge happier and stronger, particularly if the wife is assertive and the husband understanding.

The fourth and last passage that Sheehy discusses is that of the “Deadline Decade,” from ages thirty-five to forty-five. About this time, adults realize that life is half over and ask “Is this all there is?” As their own parents grow old and die, they realize (as Sheehy did in Northern Ireland) that sometime they too must die. They realize that they are alone and that their partners are separate individuals as well. A man worries about having time left to do everything; he may believe that he needs to give more attention to his family. A woman without a firm sense of her own identity begins to wonder how to fill the years after her children leave or...

(The entire section is 950 words.)