Self-alienation of the Elderly in Margaret Laurence's Fiction
Rosalie Murphy Baum
Many modern writers portray elderly characters as self-alienated; that is, in Abraham Maslow's words, they are incapable of self-actualization or of the "ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities and talents" (45). An examination of Margaret Laurence's fictional portrayal of three elderly women, however, suggests that the women's patterns of behavior in old age are simply variations of a neurotic pattern of self-alienation, what Marcia Westkott identifies as a "core dependent character" (87), which is gender-neutral in our culture, begins in childhood, and can continue indefinitely in a parent-child-parent cycle.
Karen Horney's work focuses largely upon three basic patterns of neurotic behavior which the "core dependent character" can take--the compliant or dependent, the aggressive or domineering, and the detached. All three forms are found in Laurence's fiction. For example, Mrs. Cameron, Rachel's mother in A Jest of God, is a good example of an elderly woman in whom compliant ("moving toward") tendencies dominate. Such a person frequently controls others through his or her need of them; he may take the stance that "You must love me, protect me, forgive me, not desert me, because I am so weak and helpless" ( Our Inner Conflicts, hereafter OIC53). Hagar Shipley, Marvin's mother in The Stone Angel, offers a good example of the aggressive type ("moving against"), who denies his or her softer feelings, abhors helplessness, and seeks independence or mastery. Hagar is a superb example of two varieties of this type which Horney identifies--the perfectionist and the arrogant-vindictive--and is Laurence's supreme achievement in characterization. Mrs. MacLeod, Ewen's mother and Vanessa's grandmother in A Bird in the House, offers an excellent example of the detached person ("moving away from"). Such a person feels a strong need for superiority and usually looks at those around him with condescension. He or she frequently suppresses emotion and realizes his need for superiority in a world essentially of isolation.
Laurence's portrayal of these three elderly women and their families offers a bleak view of human potential and, more especially, of the mother-child