Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

“The ones who cry”: Aging and the anxiety of finitude in J. M. Coetzee's novels of senescence
by Grayson, Erik, Ph.D., State University of New York at Binghamton, 2010, 252; 3398571
Abstract (Summary)

In this dissertation, I contend that, beginning with Age of Iron (1990), J. M. Coetzee has engaged in a prolonged and unflinching examination of the ways in which the elderly individual confronts, processes, and copes with the feelings of alienation, exile, loss, and anxiety brought on by the onset of old age. In the three chapters comprising the heart of this study, I argue that Coetzee places each of the principal characters in Age of Iron, The Master of Petersburg (1994), and Disgrace (1999) at a moment of existential crisis towards the end of their respective lives. Although Elizabeth Curren’s terminal cancer, the death of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s stepson, and the rape of David Lurie’s daughter, among other factors, contribute to the development of these crises, in each instance the individual’s age is a direct and powerful catalyst for a confrontation with individual finitude. The anxiety of each of the three principal characters in Coetzee’s novels of the 1990s, when facing their own mortality, invariably results in a series of attempts to transcend death. In each novel, the protagonist explores the transcendent potential of both biological and creative self-projection.

None of these attempts at transcendence, however, provides the elderly individual with any real solace as he or she contemplates his or her end. The failure of these projects to achieve transcendence—or, at the very least, to convince the reader of their success in doing so—does not contribute to an uplifting image of human senescence in Coetzee’s fiction. Instead, I argue, the author depicts aging as an increasingly difficult process of degradation, deprivation, alienation, and etiolation. In doing so, Coetzee crafts highly intricate novels of senescence that are both at the forefront of a new stage in literary gerontology and, with their concern for the marginalization and disempowerment of the elderly, thoroughly consistent with the author’s career-long interest in and compassion for the ideologically-, culturally-, and socially-exiled. In my concluding chapter, I contend that Coetzee ultimately endorses this compassion, the product of a fully-engaged sympathetic imagination, as the sole source of beauty and comfort in an otherwise grim vision of old age.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Strehle, Susan
Commitee: Church, Joseph, Tucker, Libby, Wright, Laura
School: State University of New York at Binghamton
Department: English, General Literature, and Rhetoric
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 71/04, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Modern literature, African literature, Gerontology
Keywords: African, Aging, Coetzee, J. M., Existentialism, Gerontology, Literature, South Africa
Publication Number: 3398571
ISBN: 9781109718409
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