Elizabeth Curren In J. M. Coetzee's Age Of Iron

3020 words - 12 pages

Elizabeth Curren in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron

"Given or lent?” asks T. S. Eliot in his poem “Marina,” as he examines the construction of one’s own life from the point of view of a speaker who, reaching the later years of life, feels an urge to “resign” tattered, old life for “the hope, the new ships.” J. M. Coetzee grapples with some similar issues with his character Elizabeth Curren in the novel Age of Iron. Curren throughout the course of the novel goes through a process of realizing and accepting the fact that her comfortable life as a retired white professor in apartheid South Africa has truly been built on the foundation of a deplorable social system, as well as that she is not completely innocent in her complacency with that system. As Eliot understands that he has “Made this [life] unknowing, half-conscious, unknowing, my own,” Curren awakens as she disintegrates towards death to the reality of the conditions in South Africa and her own failures in life. However, whereas Eliot sees some salvation or rebirth, even if perhaps unreachable, in the youth of “the new ships,” Curren sees only a worrisome coldness and lack of innocence in the youth around her and feels nostalgia for earlier times. During the last days of her life, she dwells on the need for a softening in people that has been overcome by an iron-like attitude in the current climate, but she herself is swept into the very state that she denounces in many ways. She internalizes the softer side of herself, becoming more and more introspective and self-absorbed as the days move on, while displaying a harder shell to the outside world. Her inability to cast off her ways of thinking and acting within South African society despite her growing awareness of their problematic nature is a testimony to the larger dilemma that the situation that has emerged in the country has left no place for the spirit of compassion and generosity for which Elizabeth Curren finds herself wishing so strongly.

Within the first few pages of the book, Curren already begins to address the issue of Cape Town’s troubled black youth when she admits her fear of “the sullen-mouthed boys, rapacious as sharks… scorning childhood” (7). Their hurried maturation into under-nurtured adults disturbs her; she fears that in their rush to don the role of fighting adults they fail to develop fully the more sensitive parts of the soul, a condition that could have adverse consequences on the future of South Africa. Her reservations lead her into conflict with members of the black community, including her housekeeper Florence. Florence’s child Bheki and, even more drastically, his young friend both display the symptoms Elizabeth Curren worries about, but when she voices her grievances on the subject, she is met with anger and iciness from Florence. She then describes both the housekeeper and the children in terms of iron, as living in an “age of iron” (50). In contrast to this hard attitude, she advocates a warmer...

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