AbstractsLanguage, Literature & Linguistics

Long-Term Caring: Canadian Literary Narratives of Personal Agency and Identity in Late Life

by Patricia Life

Institution: University of Ottawa
Year: 2014
Keywords: age; nursing home; literature; identity; agency; narrative; genre; positive aging; decline and progress
Record ID: 2024600
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10393/31162


This thesis analyses thirteen key literary texts taken from the last century of Canadian English-language publishing to assess how each text reveals, reinforces, and /or resists narratives of natural-aging, decline, progress and positive-aging. When considered together, these texts illustrate overall patterns in the evolution of age-related beliefs and behaviours. Stories have a potential emotional impact that scholarly readings do not, and thus the reading and study of these texts can serve to promote conscious intellectual consideration of the issues surrounding age and aging. My analysis focuses on how our Canadian literature envisages aging into old age, primarily addressing stories set in late-life-care facilities and comprising what I am naming our ‘nursing-home-narrative genre.’ Although my chapters follow a chronological progression, beginning with Catharine Parr Traill’s 1894 Pearls and Pebbles and concluding with Janet Hepburn’s 2013 Flee, Fly, Flown, I am not arguing that each age-related belief is replaced by a succeeding one. I would assert instead that over time Canadians have accumulated an assortment of age ideologies, some of which mesh and some of which duplicate or even contradict others. For example, although many people have embraced new positive-aging ideologies, aging-as-decline narratives still circulate strongly. Using social and literary theory as support, I argue that the selected literary texts of my analysis (Traill, Wilson, Laurence, Shields, Wright, Barfoot, Munro, Tostevin, Gruen, Hepburn, King) reveal a genre that is evolving quickly in both form and content. The nursing-home-narrative genre begins with gothic stories of fear of the nursing home, of aging and of death, expands to include darkly humorous stories featuring increasingly empowered residents successfully living within care homes, and is introducing, during the twenty-first century, fantastical stories of escape from the home and of return to youthful behaviours and preferable habitats. This most recent narrative joins the earlier ones to create a new master narrative in which aging people can overcome fear with agency and thus ultimately reject the nursing home and old age itself. However, in the most compelling of the new agency and escape narratives, authors lay a thin icing of entertainment over a dark undercurrent of reality.