Aging in Literature: A Reader's Guide (1990)  

Co-author, Robert E. Yahnke, Professor of Writing, Literature, and Film at the University of Minnesota

 Preface:  "We have written this book because literature on the subject of aging has come of age.  More and more writers are portraying the experience of aging in their fiction, drama, poetry, and autobiography.  They are creating main characters who are old.  They are setting forth plot that show older people dealing firsthand with the issues of later life.  They are articulating themes that express some 'truths' about old age."

"In short, we believe that the subject of old age in literature has long been undervalued, and that a substantial body of literature has been under-used by librarians, teachers, gerontologists, and health-care professionals, not to mention the serious general reader."

150 literary works are then evaluated: novels, stories, plays, poems, non-fiction.  Aids are provided so that you can locate an entry by a given author; or by such major life responses as love, hate, faith, despair; or by major gerontological topics such as Alzheimer's disease, retirement homes, ethnic culture.  Sample entries:

Author:  Berriault, Gina
Title: "The Diary of K.W." in The Infinite Passion of Expectation: Twenty-Five Stories.  San Francisco: North Point Pr., 1982
Genre: story
Commentary: This is the strangely engaging soliloquy of an elderly loser who keeps a diary over several weeks as she starves physically and spiritually.  K.W. has been fired as cafeteria substitute helper at a grammar school because she couldn't bear feeding the children to grow up in misery.  From her rambling thoughts, one learns that KW. had been a high school valedictorian; she had once been married; she has read philosophy; she has painted; she has worked most her life on her feet.  She fantasizes about loving a young man who has moved upstairs.  The brief final entry is headed "The Last Day."

What is the appeal of this ugly stick of an old woman who seems determined to despise herself, to wince at the joy of lovers, to starve to death?  Well, she is thoughtful; she has a wry wit; she is compassionate.  One likes her company.  The core of K.W. seems to be her fearful, pessimistic, but tender and loving heart--perhaps the heart of many lonely old people who exist in impoverished solitude.


Author:  Thompson, Ernest
Title: On Golden Pond.  New York: Dodd, 1979
Genre: play
Commentary:  An affectionate old couple spend perhaps their last season at the old family summer home on Golden Pond in Maine.  They suffer the anxieties of physical decline.  They work out a lifelong tension with their adult daughter.  They enjoy coming to know a lively boy in the place of the grandchildren they never had.  They taste once more the simple pleasures and friendship they had always treasured here.  Finally, they experience, beneath the banter and fencing, the real depth of their love.

Norman Thayer, 79, a retired professor, and his younger wife, Ethel, open the new season on Gold Pond.  Described in the stage directions as "boyish and peppery," Norma is contentious with others, both playfully and sadistically.  His manner conceals a fear of death, a distress over his failures of memory, and a nervousness about his fortyish daughter Chelsea.  When Chelsea arrives for his eightieth birthday, she is once more the little fat girl being picked on by her dad.  Parent and child use this one great chance to reconcile.  Bill Ray, the 13-year-old son of her future husband, forms a lovely friendship with the old man that allows Norman's younger self to make an encore appearance.  Throughout, Norman's wife shows the courageous wit and understanding to help him toward their day of serene farewell to Golden Pond.

  Copyright 2005-2009  by Richard M. Eastman.  All rights reserved.