Old Women in Canadian Literature

Margaret Laurence's "The Stone Angel", Joan Barfoot's "Duet for Three" and Suzette Mayr's "The Widows"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

18 Pages, Grade: 2,3


List of contents

1. Introduction

2. The Social Construction of Age

3. Old Women in Canadian Literature: The Stone Angel, Duet for Three and The Widows
3.1 The Aging Body
3.2 The Relationship of Grandmothers and Granddaughters
3.3 The Fear of Nursing Homes
3.4 Old Women and Sexuality

4. Conclusion

5. Literature

Primary literature

Secondary literature

Internet sources

1. Introduction

Everyone of us is concerned with the process of aging. As soon as we are born, our body starts to grow older and with the years it becomes visibly more and more. Aging is the natural course of life but in our society it often seems to be an uncomfortable subject to talk about.

Although the situation of the elderly has improved throughout the last years, older people are often neglected and marginalized by society. They are often associated with negative images like being helpless, rigid and useless.

The study of aging is very complex and can be examined from many perspectives, for example from a biological, a sociological, or a psychological point of view.

This paper focuses on aging in literature, especially in the writings of Canadian women authors, in which old age is a relatively new subject.

The aim of this paper is to point out how Canadian women writers deal with the topic of old age, especially that of women, and what kind of image about old age they want to transmit through their stories. Are they depicting old women in stereotypical ways or do they try to reveal and change those stereotypes?

The novels that will be discussed here, are Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1964), Joan Barfoot’s Duet for Three (1985), and The Widows (1998) by Suzette Mayr.

Before analyzing different aspects of aging in these novels, it will be useful to have a look at the social construction of age.

Afterwards, I will explore different issues of aging that play important roles in the novels and also in our society.

Starting with the aspect of physical aging and the impact it has on the different female characters, the second point will analyze the relationships of grandmothers and granddaughters.

Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how the authors deal with the widespread negative images of nursing homes and the fear that is often associated with those places.

Finally, this paper will explore the representation of sexuality in the novels. How are older people depicted in terms of sexual relationships? Are they really as asexual as many people think or is this one of many misperceptions about old people?

2. The Social Construction of Age

Due to increased life expectancy and a declining birthrate the proportion of older people is increasing worldwide.[1]

We all are growing old, but as Susan Hillier says in Aging, the Individual, and Society, “In many people’s minds … growing old is something that happens only to others and only to individuals older than themselves” (Hillier 1999: 3).

Old age is often viewed as a social problem but it has not always been like that. Before the nineteenth century, old age was more often “honored and obeyed” than today. However, since the 1800s people “increasingly glorified youth instead of age, and the elderly often became victims…of prevailing attitudes and social arrangements” (Hillier 1999: 18).

Elderly people are stereotyped in many ways. There are some positive stereotypes like that of the loving and generous grandparents but most of the images are negative. Old people are for example often associated with illness, mental decline, uselessness or isolation.[2]

Although society tends to generalize old people, we all age differently due to different influences and different lifestyles.

The problem is not the aging process itself or the changes that may occur with late life. The problem is the way how we are treated and categorized by society because it has such a big influence on us and on the way we perceive ourselves.

When talking about the social construction of age, one has to make a distinction between men and women because both genders age differently.

According to author Susan Sontag, women are more affected by aging than men. She says that aging is a female phenomenon, because women are seen as old as soon as they are not very young anymore, whereas men only get more mature. Sontag also argues that aging is not only a biological process but rather a condemnation of women, determined by the way society reduces the freedom of women.[3]

Talking about old age, it is also necessary to define the term ‘old’.

It is of course difficult to say who is old or to name the exact age when it happens because it depends on many factors if a person views him-or herself as old.

The legal definition of old age has become the age 65, but as health and social conditions have improved since the 1930s, this is probably not a suitable definition anymore.[4]

However, I will use the term ‘old’ for those over age 75, as most of the protagonists in The Stone Angel, Duet for Three and The Widows are older than that.

3. Old Women in Canadian Literature: The Stone Angel, Duet for Three and The Widows

The subject of aging is a relatively new topic in Canadian literature and it has increased more and more since the 1960s when Margaret Laurence was one of the first women writers to deal with old age.

Old age has always been part of English, American and Canadian literature, but especially in English and American writings old people only occurred in secondary roles and were mostly seen as threats or burdens.[5]

With The Stone Angel, Laurence for the first time created a story that is told from the perspective of a ninety year old woman.

As Sally Chivers points out in her book From old Woman to older Women, “The Stone Angel sets up the field of literary gerontology, especially that focused on women” (2003: 20).

Besides Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, two other novels will be discussed here in the context of old age, Joan Barfoot’s Duet for Three and Suzette Mayr’s The Widows.

As already mentioned, the narrator and also the protagonist of The Stone Angel is a ninety year old woman, Hagar Shipley.

Through her, the reader gets a very intimate view into her past and her life as an old woman who is facing the end of life. Rejecting to move into a nursing home, Hagar escapes to a place called Shadow Point where she comes to terms with her past and also with her fear of death.

As will be shown later, Duet for Three is in many ways similar to The Stone Angel.

However, whereas Laurence’s novel only focuses on the thoughts of Hagar, Duet for Three is told from two perspectives, the one of eighty year old Aggie and that of her middle-aged daughter June. The novel tells the story of three generations of women, Aggie, June, and Frances who are all longing for love and a reconnection of the motherly and daughterly bond.


[1] See Hillier (1999), Aging, the Individual, and Society, 8.

[2] See Hillier (1999), Aging, the Individual, and Society, 24.

[3] See Maierhofer (2003), Salty Old Women, 38.

[4] See Hillier (1999), Aging, the Individual, and Society, 26.

[5] See Bagnell (1989), Perceptions on Aging in Literature, 38.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Old Women in Canadian Literature
Margaret Laurence's "The Stone Angel", Joan Barfoot's "Duet for Three" and Suzette Mayr's "The Widows"
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Canadian Women Novelists
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
451 KB
Women, Canadian, Literature, Canadian, Women, Novelists
Quote paper
Corinna Thömen (Author), 2005, Old Women in Canadian Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/74435


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