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Age Breaks in Literature

The midlife crisis has long been known to literature: Dr. Thorsten Fitzon, lecturer at the Department of German of the University of Freiburg, is studying the genre of stories on aging, and is exploring the question: What is the critical age?


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Goethe and the critical age: Literary texts on aging are closely linked to new forms of narration. (Foto: © Aridula / photocase)factsheet2.png

Some topics never lose their relevance. One such topic is the role of age. Plato and Cicero dealt with it thousands of years ago, and in our time of demographic change it is even more important than ever before to consider new ways to interpret age. Literary portrayals have always exerted influence on society, and they still do today, because we often understand that which we read as a simulation of our own feelings and the actions of fictional characters as a kind of test for our own actions. But since discourse on age is subject to change, older texts need to be placed in their historical context and interpreted on that basis, as Fitzon argues, and this has yet to be done for stories in which middle-aged characters reflect on the process of aging.


  • The Subjectivization of Age

Around 1800 fictional narratives began appearing that focused on the subjective consciousness of one of the characters. This led to the innovation of new forms of narration, which in turn gave birth to the idea of the “critical age,” which we know today as the midlife crisis: Around the age of 50, in women as early as 30 or 40, we ask ourselves the question: “Am I young or old?” As this question excludes the possibility of a third option — a transitional age between old and young — it can lead to a personal crisis and a distanced self-perception. This critical age thus marks a break in our conception of self, a break that authors were only able to adequately describe by developing new forms of narration, such as free indirect speech and internal monologue. Such methods enabled the reader to gain insight into another person’s subjective experience of aging. The topic gained currency at the end of the 18th century: Many texts refer to age even in their titles, like August von Kotzebue’s The Man of Forty Years (1795), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Man of Fifty Years (1808/1829), or Therese von Huber’s The Woman of Forty Years (1800).


  • The Genre of Stories on Aging

Fitzon is concentrating on stories written from the beginning of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. These stories, many of which name a concrete age in their titles, deal with a so-called dangerous age between 30 and 60 and interpret it as a caesura in our perception of self and others brought about by the consciousness of our own mortality. The stories offer a new perspective on aging, describing it for the first time as an subjective experience rather than from the outside perspective of a typically younger narrator, as was previously common. The popularity of the genre peaked at the beginning of the 19th century and again at the beginning of the 20th century. These two peaks coincide with the modernization of industry and important advancements in psychology — developments that are of course connected with the increased societal interest in the description of midlife crises. The new genre challenges the traditional notion of aging as a process of maturation and fulfillment and transforms it. The stories on aging are thus fundamental texts for analysis of the personal perspective on aging in the modern world. They are also a reflection of modern man’s realization that, despite the advancement of science and a longer life expectancy, he will eventually have to decide between a young and an old identity, because the years in between are lost in the struggle to remain youthful as long as possible.


  • The Old Man in Spring
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In the age of sentimentalism authors presented the figure of the "old man in spring". (Foto: © daniel.schoenen / photocase) 

But not only do the narrative structures change, so do the typical topoi — a term for traditional imagery in literature — for illustrating the diverse aspects of the topic of aging. The specific experience of time in old age and the changes it brings about are elucidated through the variation of a particular topos: Winter has always been a common image for old age and the transience of human existence in the visual arts and literature. In the Age of Sentimentalism, authors contrasted this traditional image with the figure of the “old man in spring”. Society’s expectation that old age should be characterized by withdrawal and reflection on the afterlife is thus confounded by the contradictory and ambivalent image of an old man who, against all expectations, experiences  spring anew. In the course of the 19th century, this new experience of aging takes on a more self-assertive tone — the elderly person who refuses to focus exclusively on his or her imminent death, but instead wants to experience spring in the present. The variation of winter as a topos for old age demonstrates how modern literature makes use of traditional images but also changes them and breathes new life into them. The traditional imagery of the seasons of life, in which winter stands for old age and death, thus receives a new meaning which is no less based on the cyclical model of seasons. After all, every winter is followed by a spring, even if the proverbial “second” or “third spring” in life might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one sees the trees and flowers blossoming each year.

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Dr. Thorsten Fitzon

Thorsten Fitzon has served as lecturer at the Department of German of the University of Freiburg since 2004. He has also been a member of the Junior Academy for Young Scholars and Scientists (WIN-Kolleg) of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities since 2007, where he heads the research group “The Religious and Poetic Construction of Age. Conceptualizing and Denoting Age-Caesuras in the Life Cycle.” The project explores how the cultural interpretation of the human life cycle has changed since ancient times.




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