Charlotte Spivack (essay date Summer 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5923

SOURCE: “‘Only in Dying, Life’: The Dynamics of Old Age in the Fiction of Ursula Le Guin,1” in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 43-53.

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[In the following essay, Spivack examines the unconventional portrayal of elderly characters and old age in Planet of Exile, “The Day Before the Revolution,” and the Earthsea trilogy. According to Spivack, Le Guin challenges common stereotypes of the elderly as feeble-minded, inert, and weak.]

Falstaff and the Wife of Bath meet at the local pub. Their conversation over ale turns to reminiscence. “Whan it remembreth me upon my youthe and on my jollitee, it tickleth me about mine herte rote,” remarks the “gode Wyf,” winking at her companion. “Ah, yes,” replies Falstaff, his voice husky with nostalgia, “We have heard the chimes at midnight.” Although this aging pair are among the great individual characters in English literature, their conversation is stereotypical. The aged are typically given to reminiscing. They are also typically garrulous, forgetful, irascible, stoop-shouldered, and hard of hearing. Or are they? Are literary stereotypes of the aged based on actual observation of typical traits, or are they the more arbitrary products of social and literary conventions? Are vigorous and clear-headed elderly people as characters in literature relegated to the same unconvincing category as lovable mothers-in-law, generous landlords, and professors with presence of mind?

In most modern fiction elderly characters tend to have relatively minor roles which encourage stereotyping. As in the lament of the ancient servant Adam in As You Like It about “unregarded age in corners thrown” all too often literary portraits of the elderly remain in the corners in their books, not so much delineated as outlined; hence the few usual brushstrokes—garrulous, forgetful, irascible, stoop-shouldered, and hard of hearing. But there are notable exceptions. One such exception is the science fiction of Ursula Le Guin.

Since science fiction has not been traditionally considered strong on characterization, one might not expect to find outstanding portrayals of the elderly within its speculative covers. In recent years, however, much SF has become issue-oriented, with many major writers expressing significant social themes in that genre. Ursula Le Guin, one of the most important contemporary writers of SF and one of the most gifted in character portrayal, has been especially concerned in her work with the need for breaking down both social and sexual stereotypes. Twice winner of the top Hugo and Nebula awards for her novels,2 Le Guin has brought to science fiction the viewpoint of the anthropologist toward other and alien cultures. Daughter of famous anthropologists Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, Le Guin was brought up in a milieu where cultural anthropology was a way of life, and this remarkable background has enabled her to make her own writing a medium for exploring various non-traditional attitudes toward human nature and human society. In addition, her own father, who lived to be 85, was for her a living model of non-stereotypical old age, a man of tremendous vitality to the end. “A gray man, / All my lifetime, with a short gray beard.”3

In her science fiction, then, Ursula Le Guin explores several kinds of social structure as well as several kinds of human beings, including a few memorable examples of aged characters: three particularly vivid and touching types. These figures are not even garrulous, forgetful, or stoop-shouldered.

One male and one female, two of these characters are dynamic portraits of old age. Both Wold, the patriarch in Planet of Exile, and Odo, the anarchist in “The Day Before the Revolution,” are distinguished by a dynamic ambivalence. At the...

(The entire section contains 84453 words.)

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