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Literature and Aging

Life Crises And Life Review

Appealing to older readers with experience of life's dilemmas, adult fiction grapples with sometimes unresolvable problems. In adult fiction, characters in their fifties, sixties, and seventies often begin to reflect on their life experiences as a response to crises they cannot otherwise resolve. For example, Toni Morrison's Jazz (1992) unexpectedly becomes "a midlife progress novel" (Gullette, 1988). The African American protagonists are in their fifties. The husband has murdered his teenage lover, and his wife has to be restrained from carving up the corpse's face. Morrison's plot gradually reveals the roots of their problems. Perfect understanding eludes the characters, yet healing does occur. Other novels with similar themes include Madeleine L'Engle's A Severed Wasp (1982), Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow (1983), Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety (1987), and David Lodge's Therapy (1995). Reviewing one's life, however, may well increase one's pain. Stevens, the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989), discovers that the principles by which he has conducted himself have left him in a lonely old age. He never realized that his employer was a fascist or that Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, loved him dearly.

Life review plays an especially important role in the lives of characters who have emigrated from their countries, often under harrowing circumstances. One fascinating example is Mercy of a Rude Stream (1994–1998), Henry Roth's four-volume continuation of Call It Sleep (1934). The complex narrative structure of Mercy emphasizes the feelings of the old narrator, who looks back upon the literary and sexual adventures of his youth with a mixture of pride and dismay. In order to write about the shameful episodes, the old man confides in his computer, Ecclesias, as if it were a psychotherapist or a father confessor. Much emphasis is placed on the thoughts and feelings of the narrator during three separate moments in his life: his youth, his seventies when he is composing the first draft of this novel sequence, and his mid-eighties when he is revising the manuscript in anticipation of his imminent death.

Life review also appears in the novels of younger immigrant writers, who explore the past of their families in order to understand their lives in the present. The weight of the past tyrannizes the young protagonist in Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers (1925). Sara Smolinsky feels obliged to rebel against what she regards as the irrational demands of her Polish-born father, Reb Smolinsky, who grows out of touch with the alien world of America. In the last sentence of the novel, however, she expresses a more knowing and complicated view of his behavior. Although she does not regret her rebellion, she now sees her father as a victim of the "generations who made" him (p. 297). Yezierska treats minor aging female characters, such as Muhmenkeh in Arrogant Beggar (1927), more generously than the immigrant fathers or middle-aged, American-born men who populate her novels.

Protagonists in three novels of the 1990s attempt to recreate their parents' youth. Sophie Caco, the heroine of Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danicat's Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), cannot come to terms with her mother's nightmares and her own sexual phobia until she temporarily returns to Haiti and Grandmè Ifé. Virginity tests, a Haitian custom designed to keep young girls pure, cause Sophie's distress. After revisiting her grandmother, Sophie realizes how helpless Haitian women have always been in the face of male domination. Her mother could not eradicate the memory of being raped by a member of the Macoutes, a paramilitary force in Haiti. In her vulnerability, she feels driven by a powerless love to inflict this test on her daughter, even though it had failed to protect her purity years before. When her mother, newly pregnant, commits suicide to escape from unbearable nightmares, Sophie once again returns to Haiti for the burial. There she learns to accept her mother's stunted life and death, for only in death ou libéré, are you free.

Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban (1992) describes the bond between a Cuban grandmother and an American granddaughter, feelings that long distance can attenuate but not destroy. Pilar, who is reared in Brooklyn, returns to Cuba to visit her grandmother Celia. After the visit cements their affectionate relationship, Celia feels ready to abandon her family by walking into the sea. Pilar, who has learned enough to understand her heritage, is now ready to enter adulthood. The necessity of reviewing one's life receives a new twist in Elie Wiesel's The Forgotten (1992). Forty-year-old Malkiel Rosenbaum attempts to reconstruct the Romanian Holocaust experiences of his father, Elhanan Rosenbaum. The old professor suffers from increasing dementia. If his son is to understand the family past, he must attempt to recreate the story by himself.

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