The View of Ageing and Older Age in Selected Canadian Short Stories

Examination Thesis, 2017

40 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Ageing and Older Age in Contemporary Society
2.1 Growing Old in Contemporary Society and Culture
2.2 The Scientific and Academic View of Ageing

3. The View of Ageing and Older Age in Literature and Culture
3.1 A Historical Overview
3.1.2 Classical Greek and Roman Literature
3.1.3 The Middle Ages and the Renaissance
3.1.4 Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century
3.1.5 From Nineteenth Century to Contemporary Literature
3.2 The Purpose and Function of Literature on Ageing

4. The View of Ageing in Selected Canadian Short Stories
4.1 Ageing as a Narrative of Decline: “The Labrador Fiasco” and “Miss Foote”
4.2 Ageing as a Narrative of Opportunity: “A Chair for George” and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”
4.3 Beyond a Dualistic Approach: A Realistic Depiction of Ageing in “The Bad News” and “Dolly”

5. Conclusion


“Old Age is full of death and full of life. It is a tolerable achievement and it is a disaster. It transcends desire and it taunts it. It is long enough and it is far

from being long enough.”

― Ronald Blythe (1979: 29)

1. Introduction

At what age are people considered “old”? Does old age start when people retire and become grandparents, or is it the age of 65 that determines old age, as proposed by many governments and institutions (Sugar et al. 2014; DeFalco 2010; Jansohn 2004; Aiken 2001: 4)? Is it someone’s physical and mental condition that helps us distinguish between “old” and “not yet old”, or does old age start once people talk more about “bygone days” (Aiken 2001: 309) than future events? As a matter of fact, no universal definition of “old” and “old age” exists, simply because these terms are highly relative by nature and differ widely across individuals, cultures, and periods (Blaikie 1999: 3). Although ageing is an “inevitable shared human experience” (Kohn 1992: xviii) that starts from the day we are born and ends with our death, most people are reluctant to give any thoughts to this delicate and uncanny subject, at least, as they are young and healthy (Aiken 2001: 304-305). Yet, the subjects of ageing and older age are becoming more and more important due to the increasing life-expectancy and the growing number of older people in most countries around the world. The fact that people today live longer than ever before in human history can be regarded as a great societal achievement, but it has ironically created new problems for individuals and society as a whole (Aiken 2001: v; Jansohn 2004: 1; Sugar et al. 2014: xi). The prevalence of age-related chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s increases with age and causes new challenges for affected people and their families (Cole 1992: xxii). Moreover, health care costs have dramatically increased in most western societies and the burden of these costs continues to shift to younger generations who have to care for an increasing number of older people (Aiken 2001: v; Jansohn 2004: 1).

These and other issues have given rise to a public and academic discourse on ageing and older age that is marked by ambiguity and scepticism, reflecting people’s mixed feelings about the subject matter. Apart from economic and financial issues, older age has long been perceived as a period of decline and deterioration (Blaikie 1999: 2), while positive aspects and opportunities have not been taken into account. This overemphasis on negative aspects of ageing has also been facilitated by an “obsession with youth” (Jansohn 2004: 1), promoted by the media, consumerism, popular culture, and the fashion industry (Johnson 2005: 354; Blaikie 1999: 3). Moreover, as Sugar et al. argue, “there has been a lack of recognition […] of the realities of an aging population” (2014: xi). Until the present day, people’s attitudes towards the elderly are often marked by old stereotypes and misconceptions. All too often, senior citizens are perceived as one homogeneous group while individual differences are not recognised (Erber 2010: 12; Sugar et al. 2014: 24).

Despite these negative views, a new image of older age has emerged in recent years, depicting later life as a time full of potentialities and new opportunities, “marked by vigor and good health” (Gillick 2006: 5). Such views paint an entirely different picture of older age with seniors living a hedonistic and affluent life, enjoying their “consumer lifestyle retirement” (Johnson 2005: 354). This image of older age is also increasingly promoted by advertising, the media, and the fashion and beauty industry, all of them hoping to profit from the growing number of older costumers and consumers (Blaikie 1999). While such views can help to improve the image of ageing and older age, they might, at the same time, paint an unrealistic picture of later life.

In response to the oversimplified views, both positive and negative ones, the interdisciplinary field of gerontology has emerged in recent years, aiming to provide a more objective and comprehensive view of ageing and older age (Sugar et al. 2014: xi-xii). In fact, gerontology offers an interdisciplinary approach that examines biological, psychological, and socio-cultural aspects of ageing. Yet, the discipline has been criticised for not sufficiently taking into account approaches from the humanities and arts (see Katz 2001; Blaikie 1999). Therefore, another academic field, called ageing studies, has emerged recently . Scholars of this discipline attempt to provide a broader and more holistic view of ageing, by analysing it not only as a “fixed biological or chronological process but [as] a complex cultural and social phenomenon,” as Jansohn (2004: 2) states. Such alternative views can help to enhance our knowledge of ageing and older age by exploring the multifaceted realities of older people, and by analysing the cultural implications of a population that is growing older and older (Blaikie 1999: 2). Moreover, such an attempt can help to “scrutinize the term ‘old age’ and its ideological sources,” as Blaikie (ibid: 2) argues.

One very fruitful way to explore the multiple realities of ageing and later life can be found in literature and literary studies. Like other forms of art, literature has the capacity to “construct multiple narratives of ageing that intersect and sometimes conflict with existing theories of aging,” as DeFalco (2010: 4) puts it. According to Kohn, “literature can help us understand some of the problems of aging and identity by placing us in the perspective of the elderly person experiencing the ambiguities of self and in the perspectives of friends and family around that person” (1992: 4).

Ageing and older age with all problems and opportunities are also common themes in a number of short stories of well-known Canadian writers of the twentieth and twenty-first century, such as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Thomas King, Audrey Thomas, Carol Shields, Mavis Gallant, Jane Rule, Joseph Boyden, and others. The purpose of this work is to examine the themes of ageing and older age in a selection of these short stories by referring them to the varying perceptions of the subject matter found in private, public, and academic discourses. The six short stories will be categorised in three different “narratives” of ageing. These narratives reflect, to a certain degree, the different views of ageing in our society, namely Ageing as a Narrative of Decline, Ageing as a Narrative of Opportunity, and A Realistic Depiction of Ageing. Here, the notion “realistic” does not refer to a highly accurate or lifelike depiction of ageing and older age; rather, it is an attempt to analyse the complexities of these subjects beyond the dualistic approach that portrays older age either as a period full of opportunities and chances or as one of “cellular and organic decline” (Featherstone and Wernick 1995, cited in DeFalco 2012: 2).

Having presented the general themes and objects of this study, it seems appropriate to provide a brief overview of the structure of this work. Following this introduction, chapter two portrays how ageing and older age are represented in modern (western) society, politics, and research. Subsequently, chapter three deals with ageing and older age in literature and culture. A historical overview of literature on ageing is followed by some general discussions on how literature can help to enhance our knowledge and understanding of ageing. The longest part, chapter four, is reserved for the textual analysis of six selected short stories. Margaret Atwood’s “Labrador Fiasco” (1996) and Audrey Thomas’ short story “Miss Foote” (1986) will be examined in the category Ageing as a Narrative of Decline. Subsequently, “A Chair for George” by Jane Rule (1976) and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro (1999) will be reviewed in the category Ageing as a Narrative of Opportunity. For the last category, A Realistic Depiction of Ageing, “The Bad News” (2005) by Margaret Atwood and “Dolly” by Alice Munro (2012) will be analysed. Finally, chapter five provides a conclusion of the themes and texts analysed in this work and discusses some of the limitations.

As a final remark to this introduction, we shall briefly discuss the use of the word “old er” in contrast to “old”. To acknowledge the relativeness of the word “old”, we suggest the comparative form “older” to take into account different perceptions associated with the word. Often, the term “old” is negatively connoted and implies a clear categorisation of age groups while “older” leaves more space for personal interpretations. By using “older” instead of “old”, we also aim to work against the notion of fixed age groups that are determined by people’s chronological age but do not necessarily reflect their biological, social, or psychological age.

2. Ageing and Older Age in Contemporary Society

2.1 Growing Old in Contemporary Society and Culture

“Old age is an age-old, universal phenomenon” (Achenbaum in Johnson 2005: 21) which “has had varying connotations according to historical periods” and different cultures (Blaikie 1999: 3). While older people were “honored and often of economic and social importance […] in preindustrial societies” (Foner 1986: 1), they were widely regarded as a “’burden’ on society” (Blaikie 1999: 28) in modern times, especially since the early twentieth century when welfare systems were introduced in many European countries (ibid: 28). Moreover, there has always been an obsession with youth culture in modern western society, boosted by consumerism as well as mass and popular culture (Blaikie 1999). At the same time, the topic of older age has long been disregarded or ignored, as Gillick argues in her book The Denial of Aging: “Americans are eager to prevent, obliterate, or at least conceal old age and, in keeping with the belief that we can control our destiny, we believe we will succeed” (2006: 4).

However, the subjects of ageing and older age are becoming increasingly important for societies around the globe as the number of older people and the average life expectancy continue to rise (Aiken 2001; Erber 2013). In the United States, for instance, the population aged 65 or older rose from only 4 percent in 1900 to 13 percent in 2010 and is even expected to grow up to 20.9 percent by 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau 2014: 15). This translates into a total number of 40.3 million people in 2010, twelve times higher than in 1900 (ibid: 15) and more than the entire population of Canada. These trends are not limited to western countries; all around the world, societies are experiencing dramatic increases in the number of older people in both relative and absolute terms. While the world’s total population is already expected to increase by 50 percent between the year 2000 and 2050, the number of older people is projected to grow by 300 percent (Johnson 2005: 30). Remarkably, the projected growth of the population over 65 in developing countries even exceeds the rest of the world’s growth, reaching 400 percent (ibid: 30).[1] These demographic shifts are expected to have far-reaching social, cultural, political, and economic impacts that can be “both costly and beneficial to the individual and society as a whole,” as Aiken (2001: v) argues. For individuals, older age can offer new opportunities, new freedom, and enough time for travelling and leisure activities. Often, seniors continue to play important roles in their families, communities, and jobs. An increased average life-expectancy can also be regarded as a great “societal achievement” (Jansohn 2004: 1), reflecting a country’s high standards of medical care and the good quality of life. On the other hand, caring for a large number of older people can become a difficult and costly task for societies and communities, especially if birth rates remain low and fewer people of working age have to care for an increased number of older citizens (Aiken 2001: v; Jansohn 2004: 1). According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2010), in the United States, fewer than three people of working age will have to support one older person by 2030. Apart from that, advances in health technology and an increased life-expectancy have ironically created new health related problems (Cole 1992: xxii). As more people live until an advanced age, their risk of suffering from chronic diseases increases. The prevalence of dementia, for instance, increases drastically after the age of sixty (Jansohn 2004: 1). In addition to that, a large number of older people may experience loneliness and alienation and may suffer from the feeling of not being useful to society anymore.

While the age of 65 functions as a general benchmark for governments and institutions to determine old age, many other terms, definitions, and categories exist in the public and scientific discourse. In gerontology, it has become common practice to provide subcategories in order to distinguish between different age groups within older age. Usually the following subcategories are used: “the young-old”, those between 65 to 74, “the aged” or “old-old”, referring to people between 75 and 84, and “the oldest-old” for those aged 85 and older (Sugar et al. 2014: 4; Erber 2010).

Apart from chronological age, that measures the number of years a person has lived so far, there are other measures used in scientific contexts that can define a person’s age, for example, biological age which refers to a person’s physical state and condition in comparison to other people of the same (chronological) age (Erber 2010: 8). Biological age can as well refer to the relative position within one’s individual lifespan; for example, someone aged 65 can hardly be considered biologically old, if he or she will live for another 25 or 30 years, whereas a person who will die by the age of 70 can be considered old once they reach the age of 65 (ibid: 8). Psychological age, in contrast, refers to a person’s cognitive and personal abilities to adapt and react to changing conditions and new circumstances. A flexible and open-minded person would, therefore, be considered psychologically younger than someone with a rigid and inflexible mindset (ibid: 8). The functional age reflects someone’s abilities to carry out certain tasks and activities in comparison to his peer group. For instance, a person who, despite older age, holds a responsible position at work, or someone who is still capable of running a marathon, is considered functionally younger than others of the same chronological age group (ibid: 9). Someone’s social age, by contrast, is determined by their social position and roles in relation to coevals (ibid: 9). For example, at certain ages, people are expected to graduate from high school, get married, or have children. Individuals who deviate from these age-related roles are often considered either older or younger than their chronological age. Unmarried people who still live with their parents would be regarded younger than those who left their home many years ago and started their own families (ibid: 9).

The English language, like most languages, has numerous terms that refer to older people. Terms such as “old” and “elderly” usually refer to people belonging to the age group of “the old-old” or “oldest-old” (Erber 2010: 12), whereas “the aged”, “seniors”, “senior citizens”, “older adults”, and “golden-agers” may also refer to the age group of “young-olds”, and may sound more positive (ibid: 12). In fact, many older people are sensitive to certain terms and expressions and thus prefer to be called “senior citizen” rather than “older adults” (Kite and Wagner 2002 cited in Erber 2010: 13). Other terms such as “retired” and “pensioners” appear to sound relatively neutral but can be misleading or inappropriate at the same time, since many older people continue to work even after the age of 65 (ibid: 13).

Hence, the way we talk about and interact with older people can be crucial for their well-being and self-esteem. Although the perceptions and public opinion of older age have improved over the last decades (Johnson 2005: 354), many stereotypes and negative concepts are still prevalent in society. Moreover, these negative views can turn into ageism, “the social stereotyping of and/ or discrimination against older people” (Aiken 2001: 338). Instances of ageism can be found in various situations in daily life, for example, when older people are treated like children or when their personal and mental capabilities are degraded (Erber 2010: 13). Ageism can also occur in the labour market when companies discriminate between age groups. In recent years, attempts have been made to address this problem and many countries have introduced anti-ageism bills in order to combat institutionalised forms of ageism. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act in the U.S. of 1967 is designed to particularly protect employees from discrimination on the grounds of age, whereas the UK Equality Act 2010 and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights aim to protect employees from various forms of discrimination including discrimination against gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and age. Ironically, unlike other forms of discrimination, ageism can affect everybody in society if they live long enough. Therefore, people who discriminate on the grounds of age indirectly discriminate against their future selves (Erber: 2010: 13).

However, it is notable that the prevalent stereotypes of older people are not always negatively connoted (ibid: 13). Studies show that multiple stereotypes of older citizens exist, including many positive ones such as the notion that older people are “generous” and “loving” (Erber 2010: 13). Positive images of senior citizens can also be found in media, advertising, and the fashion industry (Blaikie 1999). While these positive images can help to overcome misconceptions and negative stereotypes, they might, at the same time, give an unrealistic, oversimplified, and glorifying account of older age (Johnson 2005: 354; Gillick 2006: 5). Hence, even positive stereotypes and images can be viewed critically because they portray a biased and unrealistic picture of older people and older age.

2.2 The Scientific and Academic View of Ageing

For centuries, people have been trying to understand and to slow down the process of ageing (Erber 2010: 3; Aiken 2001: 16). However, the systematic research of ageing only dates back to the nineteenth century when the Belgian scientist Adolphe Quelet tried to describe the behaviour and physical condition of people at different stages in life (Erber 2010: 3). One of the first studies based on empirical observations was conducted in 1884 by the English mathematician and medical scientist Francis Galton. He “measured the physical and mental functions of more than 9,000 people ranging from 5 to 80 years of age” (Erber 2010: 3). In 1933, German developmental psychologist Charlotte Bühler published a book on the psychological processes and periods that occur in the course of a human life, including old age. Her work was widely regarded as a “foundation of life-span developmental psychology” (ibid: 3). One of the first books to include not only biological and medical but also the social aspects of older age was Problems of Aging by the American scientist E. V. Cowdry, published in 1939 (ibid: 4). After World War II, the American Gerontological Society, the American Geriatric Society, and the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics were established (ibid: 4). In the 1970s, another important institution, The National Institute on Aging (NIA), was established and one of the most renowned gerontologists, Robert Butler, became its first director (ibid: 5).

While geriatrics, as a branch of medicine, focuses on the health and care of older people, gerontology is concerned with “biological, behavioural, and social” (ibid: 5) aspects of ageing. Gerontologists study “the conditions, issues, opportunities, and problems people face as they grow older” (Sugar et al. 2014: xiii). Moreover, they try to describe, categorise, and “explain the social and economic realities of aging in our society” (ibid: xiii). Today, gerontology has developed into a multifaceted and interdisciplinary field of research, embracing numerous subjects and academic disciplines such as psychology, sociology, political and social science, economics, medicine and public health, biology, and, in parts, even the humanities (Sugar et al. 2014: xii - xiii).

Despite its interdisciplinary approach, gerontology has recently been criticised for its narrow focus on scientific aspects of ageing, and assessing the subject mainly “as a process of decline moving toward death” (DeFalco 2010: 1). Sociologist Stephen Katz argues that traditional gerontology fails to review the cultural construction of ageing. He, therefore, calls for a better integration of the humanities into the field of gerontology (DeFalco 2010: 2). In response to the “’scientificity’ of gerontology” (ibid: 2), the new discipline of ageing studies has been established by “critical gerontologists” (ibid: 2), social scientists, and scholars from the humanities. Their goal is to provide alternative views on ageing and older age beyond “the imperatives of cellular and organic decline” (Featherstone and Wernick 1995, cited in DeFalco 2012: 2). Accoriding to Houswitschka, ageing is not only “an individual experience [but] has always been embedded within socio-cultural environments” (cited in Jansohn: 69). Some scholars also argue that ageing is a cultural construct, just like other dimensions “of individual and social experience” (ibid: 69) including race, class, and gender (DeFalco 2010: 2). These scholars do not ignore the biological degeneration that occurs naturally when people grow older; rather, they question the “preoccupation with ‘the body as the dominant signifier of old age’ in traditional gerontology and popular culture” (DeFalco 2010: 2). They call for a more comprehensive and more realistic view of ageing and older age; views that recognise the multiplicity of older age and give us insights into the complex social, psychological, and emotional world of the elderly. Such alternative views can, for example, be found in cultural and literary studies. Literature, in particular, can deepen our knowledge of ageing and can make us rethink our perceptions and stereotypes of older people and later life (Kohn 1992; DeFalco 2010).

3. The View of Ageing and Older Age in Literature and Culture

3.1 A Historical Overview

The representation of ageing and older age in literature has always been marked by ambiguity, reflecting the prevailing perceptions of ageing in different cultures and during different historical periods (Blaikie 1999: 3, 30; Bagnell and Soper 1989: xvii). In the following section, an attempt will be made to assess the view of ageing and older age in different historical periods and cultures. However, it is, by no means, an exhaustive or global review of all literature on ageing and older age. Rather, it is a brief reflection of literary works that deal with ageing from antiquity to the present, with a focus on works of British and American writers.[2]

3.1.2 Classical Greek and Roman Literature

The view of older age in ancient Greece was rather negative or at least ambiguous. In a culture that admired the youth and everything that was “aesthetically pleasant” (Bagnell and Soper 1989: 18), older age was often negatively connoted or ignored (ibid: 18). This view is also reflected in the literary works and philosophical writings of that time. The Greek poet Mimnermus, for instance, is “longing for precious youth” (Mimnermus 1866, cited in Bagnell and Soper 1989: 18) and does not want to become older than sixty years because he believes old age is “painful and ugly” (ibid: 18). Since the number of reliable sources is limited, it is, however, not entirely clear how older people were actually treated in ancient Greece (Blaikie 1999: 29). Apart from this, some scholars argue that, due to the lower number of older people in society and the lower life-expectancy, the Greek were not too much concerned with ageing and older age, but instead were interested in other topics such as dying and death (Blaikie 1999: 29). It is also important to keep in mind, that those writers who engaged with the themes of ageing and older age depicted their own subjective views rather than reflecting the general views prevalent in society at that time. Moreover, their writings had to fulfil a certain function in respect to their work and their roles in society (Herrmann-Otto et al. 2004: 3). A comedian, for example, might have portrayed the aged in a ridiculous way, aiming to entertain his audience, whereas a philosopher could have discussed the role of older people from a rational perspective. For instance, Aristotle, in his definition of citizenship, draws a comparison between the aged and children, both being incomplete citizens with limited civil rights (Aristotle, politika 1275a, cited in Herrmann-Otto et al. 2004: 9). Plato, in contrast, criticises the youth for treating older people disrespectfully; he promotes a society that recognises the wisdom and experience of the elderly and argues that older people should receive the highest positions in politics and government (Herrmann-Otto et al. 2004: 10). In his work “Republic”, Plato retells a dialogue between Socrates and Cephalus, in which the latter states that “old age is in many respects a blessing […] since it frees one from physical desires, and leaves the mind free for philosophy” (Johnson 1998: 23). Positive images of ageing can also be found in the culture and literature of ancient Rome, where older people, and older men in particular, were ranked higher than younger ones (ibid: 11). One of the most influential Roman intellectuals, Cicero, argues that youth is in no way superior to old age, and he believes that each phase in life has its own pleasures (Jarcho 1971; Duska 2004). In his essay “De Senectute”, he writes:


[1] A detailed review of the demographic changes worldwide can be found in Chapter 1.3 of the Cambridge Handbook on Age and Ageing edited by M. L. Johnson (2005).

[2] For a detailed, cross-cultural review of literature on ageing, consult Perceptions of Aging in Literature by Bagnell and Sober (1989). An elaborate study of Old Age in the High and Late Middle Ages can be found in Shahari (in Johnson 1998). A review of old age in pre-modern and modern England is provided by Thane (2000) in Old Age in English History. The view of old age in America since 1790 is portrayed in Old Age in the New Land by Achenbaum (1978).

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The View of Ageing and Older Age in Selected Canadian Short Stories
University of Constance
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Canadian short story, Aging and literature, older age and literature, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood
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