Themes in Literature

Literary Stages of Life

Stages of Life

If, as the American mythologist Joseph Campbell has suggested, a primary purpose of storytelling is “the reconciliation of consciousness with the preconditions of its existence” (180), then, given the undeniable precondition of mortality, it is to be expected that the journey a life makes in its arc from cradle to grave is a common concern of literature. Indeed, most of the world’s religions include in their respective mythologies ideas concerning life comprising segments or movements. For instance, Hinduism teaches that a life span consists of three primary stages: the student, the householder, and the retiree. The Talmud instructs that a man will find himself playing seven roles in his life: infant, child, boy, young man, married man, parent, and old man, each in regular succession. Cree Indian spiritualism holds that there are seven “times” that demarcate one’s existence, each characterized by a condition (e.g., confusion) or an action (e.g., planting). Similarly, when we look at traditional folktales, we find a persistent concern with stages of existence. From Aesop we have the story of the horse, the ox, and the dog who bestow upon man the gifts of their natures with which to divide up his life. Included in Grimm’s Fairy Tales is the narrative of God deciding the life span of each living thing, with man in his greed receiving the rejected remainder from the more humble donkey, dog, and monkey.

Hence, working is burdensome, retirement is suspicious, and old age is foolish. The best description in a literary masterpiece of this tradition of inevitable progression through stages of life is the “All the world’s a stage” monologue of the cynical courtier Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (act 2, scene 7): All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms: Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel And shining morning-face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.

Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation, Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lin’d, With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side; His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness, and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. In Edgar Allan Poe’s masterful allegory “The Masque of the Red Death,” Prince Prospero vainly imagines he can first wall out and then defeat death. The arrangement of the abbey within which Prospero and his guests imagine themselves to be invulnerable is symbolic and also highly evocative of Jaques’s speech: seven rooms, each of a different hue and thus character, each imperceptible from the vantage point of the others. There is a sense in which the concept of life comprising stages is less a theme of literature than a precondition itself, an assumed norm, and many thematic concerns arise from the frustration, retardation, or inhibition of the process. That is, characters who fail to progress in a timely fashion experience considerable turmoil and anguish due to their unnatural state. This posits the notion that the stages are contingent on volition, the character’s capacity to make the proper choices or draw the correct conclusions from experience. Consider, for instance, the number of memorable characters who are, in essence, stuck as adolescents. Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is, though still young, unnaturally bent on dividing the world into “phonies” (nearly every adult) and those more like his sister Phoebe and late brother Allie, whom he imagines to be uncorrupted and static in a wholly unrealistic way. His inability to function at a level appropriate to his age (failure at a succession of preparatory schools, childish infatuation without any overt action with Jane Gallagher, impotent response to the prostitute Sunny) could all be seen as inevitable consequences of his untenable mental/emotional/spiritual stage/age (roughly 12, instead of 16). Similarly, though in many respects more egregiously, Harry Angstrom from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run cannot bring himself to accept the preconditions of life as a 26-year old husband and father-to-be. Just as his nickname implies, he runs, toward irresponsibility and what he imagines to be inconsequential hedonism with a prostitute. However, as the tragedy of his denials unfolds, we are made to understand that Harry’s flight from young adulthood is not only futile but also destructive.

Interestingly, Updike’s three subsequent installments of Harry’s life all find him at least one step behind (and he dies where he essentially began—playing basketball). Just as striking are the sundry literary characters whose progress through the latter stages of existence is thwarted by magic, addiction, attachment to the past, or a simple lack of faith. In his poem “Tithonus,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson memorably depicted the story of Tithonus, Aurora’s beloved, doomed to “wither slowly” in her arms because he cannot die. His is the story of the dark side of immortality, of course, the realization that our fear of death often obscures its necessity. T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” offers the figure of one who seeks to arrest the progress of time by never choosing (“Do I dare?”). He grows old, but he cannot “force the moment to its crisis”—that is, he remains more observer than agent in his own life. Like Tithonus, he has come to realize that there are worse things than the surrender to the inevitable conclusion of life—namely, that one can live out a spiritual death of excruciating torture. Fiction writers subsequent to the advent of modernism at the turn of the 20th century seemed increasingly inclined to suggest that, far from inevitable, progress through life necessarily involves struggle and, ideally, a crucible or challenging ritual that forces graduation to the next stage. Later in the century, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony offered the compelling portrait of Tayo, whose alcoholism and inner turmoil keep him rooted in the crucible of his youth, World War II. Through the help of Betonie, the shaman, he is able to see a way forward by accepting the crucible of the moment. Tayo realizes “there were transitions that had to be made in order to become whole again” (170).

Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is another example of this concept of conditional stages at work. Santiago’s crucible of more than 80 days of fishing without a catch becomes the ultimate test of faith in himself, his traditions, his beliefs, and his capacity for endurance. By implication, Santiago’s great struggle is the struggle we all must face as the time of our thriving inevitably passes, when the world is unlikely to offer much in the way of affirmation. For Santiago, the passage through is not a form of surrender nor, certainly, a turning away from the moment toward fantasy. Rather, his essence is reaffirmed by the fact of his endurance, his ultimate landing of the great marlin. Although the marlin is stripped of its tangible value by sharks, Santiago’s victory is ensured by the enormity of the skeleton. In a sense, Santiago’s triumph unifies all the stages of a life lived in obedience to a code. Ironically, had he changed with the times, he would have negated his very existence. His ultimate test of faith in himself comes when he has the least reason for faith, which Hemingway strongly suggests is the nature of life when he has Santiago tell the young Manolin that September is the time of the great fish, and thus “anyone can be a fisherman in May” (18).

See also Carroll, Lewis: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Frost, Robert: poems; Gaines, Ernest J.: Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, The; Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki: Farewell to Manzanar; Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God; Shakespeare, William: Tempest, The; Shelley, Percy Bysshe: poems; Wilder, Thornton: Our Town; Williams, Tennessee: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Wordsworth, William: “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”; Wright, Richard: Black Boy.

4 thoughts on “Literary Stages of Life

  1. one of the most powerful takes on 9/11 possible “: Welcoming Remarks Made at a Literary Reading, 9/25/01. ”

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