Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Perversions and Reversals of Childhood and Old Age in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Perversions and Reversals of Childhood and Old Age in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron

Article excerpt


This paper is based on a critical rereading of J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron. 'Surprise' as the central aspect of investigation is understood and used here in the sense of 'textual surprise': elements of unexpectedness or unorthodoxy within the text that provoke a new perspective on the overriding themes of the novel. Age of Iron in fact contains various interlinked elements of textual surprise such as the intersection of the personal and the political, the shifting identities of the characters,1 or the symbolism and the ambiguities of language. Ali these elements are synthesised by Coetzee into new ways of considering age. The concept 'age' carries generational as well as historical, individual and social reference, which Coetzee makes subtle use of. The focus in this paper is on childhood2 and old age as central issues. Middle age, which is slightly less prominent in the novel, wili also be covered to some extent.

Notions of chlidhood have in fact undergone tremendous changes over the centuries. There is agreement among scholars that modern conceptions of chlidhood originate from the Enlightenment, especially from Rousseau, and from Romanticism. More recent childhood studies in chüdren's and adult literature have provided us with more precise insights into chüdren's culture(s) and images of the child in various historical periods and socio-cultural contexts. The application of varied critical approaches to childhood has revealed the sophisticated character of implied notions of 'the child' and childhood in the discourses of literature, education, pedagogics, psychology, religion, and phliosophy.3 Old age, by contrast, has only recently seen a revival of scholarly interest outside science, medicine, and psychology, and come under the investigation of literary and cultural studies.4

Age of Iron, published in 1990 and written between 1986 and 1989, takes us to South Africa in the year 1986. Whlie the main protagonist, Mrs Curren, an old white lady, is dying in Cape Town, desperately longing for a reunion with her daughter who has been living in the U.S. since 1976, we see South Africa literaliy and metaphoricaliy ablaze.5 The writer exemplifies the state of a country deeply ruptured by racial conflict by offering unusual perspectives on childhood and old age, and modifies conventional assumptions about them by revealing their disturbing aspects, unstable character, and shifting and new meanings. More specifically, he discloses their perversions and the reversal of their mutual positions to each other. The result is an intriguing discussion of issues of status, authority, power, and legitimacy that transgresses the divisions of race and gender.

Perversions of Childhood

Throughout the novel, a constant undermining of conventional notions of childhood can be observed in the narrative structure. A substantial number of these notions are formulated through metaphors and images which tend to accentuate rather common qualities of being a child. These are, for instance, the need for comfort, dependence, and security6; helplessness and ineffectiveness7; immaturity, inexperience, irrationality, and emotionality8; irresponsibility,9 innocence and the lack of morality/ amorality10; and insignificance and non-authority.11

Two techniques used by Coetzee, however, create surprise here: Firstly, he takes a conventional assumption about chlidhood, such as a chlid's inexperience, and makes it part of a chüd-sex nexus: at the end of her life, Mrs Curren grasps the nature of her relationship with Vercueil as one of mutual care and help, induction instead of seduction. Vercueil is likened here to a boy who does not know how to love. The nearer Mrs Curren' s end comes, the more faithful he is, but still she has to guide his hand (196). This is followed up by Coetzee with an animal-sex-death nexus: Mrs Curren suspects that Vercueü has neither a conception of death nor of sex, just the "curiosity of a dog that sniffs at one's crotch, wagging its tail, its tongue hanging out red and stupid as a penis" (196-97). …

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