does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Hero’s Journey – Literature's Forgotten Older Woman

In literature, and in life, older women are often lumped into the crone category, desiccated and asexual. Brazilian author Clarice Lispector says it well in her short story, “Looking for Some Dignity.” “… she was dry, like a dried fig …. In old men she had seen many lecherous eyes. But not in old women. Out of season.”

Lespector then says: “But inside she wasn’t parched. On the contrary. Inside she was like moist gums ... And she was alive, as if she were someone, she who was no one [in old age].” The latter refers to the invisibility that also often comes with age for women. Indeed, Lispector’s short story describes a frustrating succession of efforts by the 70-year-old Mrs. Jorge B. Xavier to free herself from the physical, mental, and emotional labyrinths in which, as an old woman, she finds herself trapped. In the end, she fantasizes about romance with a famous young male singer, but asks herself whether it might “… perhaps be repugnant [for him] to kiss the mouth of an old woman?” Demoralized by that possibility, she declares, “there!—has!—to!—be!—a!—way!—out!”

You might ask why I have included this subject as part of my A Hero’s Journey series in this blog. Ah, you say, a crone who is also sensual has pulled off an amazing feat! For that alone, she could be considered heroic. Perhaps, but I am also writing about the older woman/crone in her capacity as the “main character in a fictional plot,” one of the definitions of the word hero.

I was also motivated to write about this subject after seeing an older woman described as “a woman of a certain age.” I then started to survey short stories, mostly, and discovered that, apart from mythology and fantasy, the older woman/crone as a positive figure is largely absent. The literary landscape is full of dewy ingénues, mothers, virgins, wives, and whores but, as in real life, a woman past her supposed sexual prime tends toward invisibility.

There are some notable exceptions. In Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales, the bawdy Wife of Bath is unapologetically lusty. But, even she, who has wed five different husbands, acknowledges the repulsion her latest, younger husband feels about her. “You say I’m old and fouler than a fen.” Despite that, with the emotional wisdom perhaps only an older woman could have acquired, she manages to overcome his repugnance.

In Milan Kundera’s “Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead,” a younger man tries to convince an older woman to make love to him fifteen years after their one-time tryst. She, though, is afraid both of what her son will think (“…the idea that his mother could still have a sex life disgusted him”) and of what her lover will think (“…if he got her to make love it would end in disgust…”)

Here are some other delightful stories which focus on the older woman breaking out of her archetypal confines. In “Sophie and the Angel” by Cuban author Dora Alonso, the 80-year-old and ultra-religious Sophie engages in flirtation, and perhaps more, with a supposed male angel, scandalizing her family and priest. In Costa Rican author Rima Vallbona’s “The Secret World of Grandmama Anacleta,” a nonagenarian grandmother bursts out of her long-time bed confinement and goes bowling because someone gifts her with bowling balls (thereby acknowledging her as a vibrant person). Margaret Atwood’s “Hair Jewelry” is poignant in its description of the conflicted feelings an older woman has when she comes across a former lover from her youth.

The crone in mythology, literature, and real life presents a complex subject worthy of exhaustive academic treatment. This post is obviously not that. It is merely my attempt to redress an historical imbalance by including the older woman/crone in a pantheon of heroes, where I believe she rightfully belongs. I would love to hear from you about any examples you have of the crone/older woman in literature. Actually, I would welcome any insights you have, related or not to literature.


Short Stores by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real, edited by Celia Correas de Zapata
Beyond the Border: A New Age in Latin American Women’s Fiction, edited by Nora Erro-Peralta and Caridad Silva-Nuñez
The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern
The CanterburyTales, translated by Nevill Coghill

Other A Hero’s Journey Posts:


A Cuban In London said...

Loved this post. It's true that women 'disappear' after a certain age. May I also add Fermina Daza to your marvellous list? Although I'm not a fan of Gabo, I have to admit that the beginning and the end of 'El Amor en los Tiempos del Colera' are fantastic. And that Florentino Ariza is still in love with Fermina after so many years, it's remarkable. As it is that we're both posting about members of the older generation almost simultaneously. :-)

Many thanks. That post was a good read.

Greetings from London.

Kathleen said...

Judy, This subject interested me in that I am in that category of "older women" and reject the idea that older women have little passion or jest for life. We are an untapped resource, in my opinion. The great writer of the Psalms in Chaper 92, vs.14, though not speaking specifically of women, speaks about the aging process of the righteous, i.e. "they will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green..."

Hank said...

In the American Indian Iroquois Confederation, there were 14 or 15 clans in each tribe and each clan was represented in each tribe. This clan system made every clan individual have relatives in every tribe. These clan names were "owned" by the senior women. Kinship was determined by matriarchy.
Chiefs, from each tribe, met in confederation council. These tribal chiefs were selected by the senior women. The council chose war chiefs and other chiefs that may be described as merit appointments. The council made laws applicable to all tribes and handled such matters as war, foreign relations, citizenship, etc.

Mayowa said...


I enjoyed this tremendously.

The crone features in a lot of moral stories in yoruba culture. She is usually a benevolent being who bestows good fortune on those kind enough to assist her on her journey, the moral being kindness and respect for age.

I have to admit though that few or no stories delve deeper into the crone, she is a merely a mythical symbol. I am also guilty of this in my first novel.

Much to think about...thank you for an excellent post.

Sun Singer said...

Thought-provoking post. Society, it seems, has left the crones behind by not only ignoring them but by suggesting that the term "crone" is not an honored one.

Are the archetypes too narrow? Were the tribal and other natural-religion societies too restrictive and never as mythically wondrous as we see them now in the abstract.

From the wise woman point of view, women are counseled to embrace the stage of life that they are in meaning, in part, that 80-year-old women should not be wanting that which is part of a 40-year-old woman's life any more than an 80-year-old man should be acting or thinking like a 20-year-old.

But society encourages us all to act like 40 is the new 20, 50 is the new 30, etc etc, and so the accent on youth pushes those who are not young to pretend that they are. Which is not to say those of us over 60 want to spend the rest of our lives on an ice floe or that we want to "cut back" or lie in hammocks all day.

The whole age thing seems to have us all very conflicted.


Judith Mercado said...

Wow, these are some amazing comments.

Cuban: I guess I’m going to have to go back and reread Gabo’s novel.

Kathleen: I love your Biblical allusion, and I don’t forget that Sarah bore Isaac when she was thought by her and others to be well past childbearing age.

Hank: Thanks for the Iroquois information. I was not aware of it.

Mayowa: I agree that we sometimes find the crone/older woman in traditional stories/beliefs and yet, because of our modern prevailing emphasis on youth, she seems to be scarce in current storytelling. After this post, I’m going to look at my own fiction to ensure that the older woman is not ignored.

Malcolm: It is a complex subject, isn’t it? I could twist myself into pretzels trying to find the “Right Way” to think about this issue.

Thank you all for such thought-provoking comments. Have a wonderful day!


Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Interesting how the terms we use are often negative as well: crone, spinster, etc.

Nevine said...

Judy, what a delight it is to be reading your posts again. You always have such interesting topics to share, and my mind is always left feeling satisfied... and wondering.

I was watching an interview earlier today in which Oprah was speaking with Raquel Welch about how she got through menopause. I'm not a huge Oprah fan, not in the least, actually. But as my husband flipped through the channels, I made him stop at Oprah because I couldn't peel my eyes off of either of their faces. So much plastic surgery! I applaud a woman who wants to break out of her archetypal role, but I think there are limits when it comes to the "looks" department. Does anyone really want to be 80 and looking like Joan Rivers? What a nightmare! Final say is that I encourage women to break through stereotypes, but going easy on the surgical table is also one of those ways to break stereotypes. Who says wrinkles are not beautiful and a sign of power and experience? I love every one of my hard earned wrinkles!

Thank you, Judy, for such a fascinating post.


Judith Mercado said...

Nevine, what a delight to see your presence in the blogosphere again! As for plastic surgery, my idea is that, while it is a perfectly acceptable choice for whoever wants to do it, I hope we can come to see the beauty in the wrinkles etc of older age.

Chennifer said...

I loved Short Stores by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real - will have to see if I can find the others (not too easy in Sweden - my dad is coming back from NY and the only thing I begged him to get me was the book >"Evenings at the Argentine Club" - it will feel like Christmas when I finally get my hands on it!