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Literature and Aging - Illness, Death, And Mourning

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The chief quality that separates the treatment of death in the early twenty-first-century from earlier times is the willingness of contemporary writers to include some of the grim details gleaned from the experience of watching others die. For example, Halvard Solness plunges off a tower at the conclusion of Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder (1892) in a dramatic finale. Old Jolyon Forsyte expires in a garden in John Galsworthy's The Indian Summer of a Forsyte (1918). In a later novel, Swan Song (1928 ), Soames Forsyte dies heroically. He pushes his daughter out of harm's way during a raging fire, but he is struck by the falling painting that had threatened her life. The death of Old Mrs. Moore is reported in a telegram at the end of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India (1924). Readers of these novels and plays are spared from the somber details of death and the miseries of mourning. By the middle of the twentieth-century some writers were willing to risk including the pain that can make death seem a release.

Emotional deprivation appears to kill George, the gay hero of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964). Isherwood, who was sixty at the time, suggests that emotional losses can hasten one's death. Like Kingsley Amis he stresses his hero's physical disabilities. A less relentless view of life and death appears in Gail Godwin's The Good Husband (1994). On the first page Magda Danvers, a fifty-eight-year-old professor of English literature, bluntly informs her department chair that her teaching days are over: "It seems the Great Uncouth has taken up permanent residence inside me.. . . Well, I always was a good student; now I must see what I can learn from my final teacher" (p. 3). Not only is Magda fortunate in her husband's sensitive caretaking, but she has some happy memories of the past to ease her journey. These recollections provide a respite from too relentless a focus on Magda's current state. Nonetheless, we learn many details of her progressing cancer.

Two other important novels develop similar themes. Carol Shield's prize-winning The Stone Diaries (1993) takes her protagonist Daisy Flett from birth to death. Although Daisy's midlife is by far her most productive part of her life, her retirement in Florida and her final days in a hospital and rest home are carefully depicted. Margaret Drabble's The Witch of Exmoor (1996) illuminates the effect of a powerful mother's death upon her children and grandchildren. Frieda Haxby Palmer, the grandmother, tries to write her memoirs but cannot come to terms with memories of her sister who committed suicide many years before. In the final envoi, which takes place in heaven, she recognizes that she has inflicted the same hurt on her children and grandchildren as her mother had imposed upon her.

Besides these novels, middle-aged and older memorists have described the death of kinfolk with remarkable empathy for the feelings and dignity of the failing person (see Wyatt-Brown and Waxman). Literary critic Nancy Miller has written movingly of her father's last years. Moreover, Madeleine L'Engle and Philip Roth (see Waxman, 1997) have poignantly recounted the death of near relations. L'Engle's The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (1974) depicts the decline of her ninety-year-old mother from dementia; in the second, Two Part Invention (1988), the death of her husband from cancer. Another important work is Philip Roth's Patrimony (1991), an account of the deterioration and demise of his once vigorous father. John Bayley reports what living with Alzheimer's disease can be like. His wife, the English novelist Iris Murdoch, was reduced to a second childhood, but Bayley found some joy in what otherwise might have been a desperate situation. Miller, L'Engle, Roth, and Bayley leaven misery by recalling happy episodes from their relatives' early lives. Their words challenge the power of disease and death to obliterate personality.

Miller, L'Engle, and Roth, not their parents, described their final days. Like Elinor Fuchs who dramatizes her mother's vigorous ten-year battle with Alzheimer's disease, however, they tried hard not to substitute their own feelings for parental ones (see Gullette, 2000). Scholars, such as Ruth Ray, have organized writing groups in which they encourage older people to begin the task of creating their own memoirs. Dying people are rarely able to chronicle their own decline, desirable as that might be. One exception is Claire Philip (1995) whose "Lifelines: A Journal and Poems" illustrates her changing feelings as she approaches an imminent death. Philip's training as a clinical social worker provided her the necessary detachment to analyze her emotions after her midlife was disrupted by the news that she had developed an incurable cancer.

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