Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Seven Ages represents one resolution of the themes of identity and alienation with which Figes has dealt in earlier novels. Each of Figes’ novels is an experiment, using a new mode to impose order on chaos, a mode different from any tried earlier. While Figes acknowledges the influences of T. S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Virginia Woolf, her fiction is distinctly her own. The Seven Ages, for example, yields neither Beckett’s solipsism nor Woolf’s interrelated streams of consciousness.

When Figes published her well-received study Patriarchal Attitudes: Women in Society (1970), an impressively cogent analysis of patriarchy, she had already won the Guardian Fiction Prize for her second novel, Winter Journey (1967). Alienation, identity or its lack, the nature of reality—and of art—are Figes’ concerns. Her innovative power in creating new modes of approaching these themes is beyond question.

Four of Figes’ eight previous novels focus on women: Equinox (1966), Days (1974), Nelly’s Version (1977), and Waking (1981). Waking suggests a comparison which is actually a contrast. This novel presents seven mornings in a woman’s life, from childhood to death, through stream of consciousness and with virtually no dialogue. While Waking has been praised for raising questions about the place of women, it has also been praised as a superbly fatalistic response to Jacques’ fatalistic speech in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The progression of the woman, or women, in Waking is linear.

The Narrator in The Seven Ages is no fatalist. The world she evokes is no mere state but a living entity with which she must interact. When she observes that the more things change, the more they stay the same, she is trying to maintain perspective; she is bemused and impressed by her grown children, as she is aware of her life completing its cycle.