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Aging and Fiction

BY: Paul McGuire
May 7, 2012 07:34

By Nabiya Arshad, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Gerontology is a field of study that usually focuses on various factors that affect an individual’s life as they age, including factors that are biological, social, political, or etc. According to Hooyman and Kiyak, “Aging in general refers to changes that take place in the organism throughout the life span—good, bad, neutral.” (Hooyman, Kiyak p.192) However, I believe that in our society aging is only perceived with a negative portrayal and only associated with senior citizens; this is where ageism comes in. Ageism is defined as any form of prejudice against a certain group or individual because of their age. There are several negative portrayals of the elderly and certain “expectations” of them in our society. I think there is a miscommunication or misunderstanding in the comprehension of the difference between an elderly individual and an individual that seeks medical attention. Additionally, every individual has different experiences that shape who they become, and also shape their aging process. In addition to our society, examples of the elderly and the reflection of their experiences within themselves can be viewed in works of literature. Two elderly individuals with a stark contrast in experiences and personality, but also with a similarity to reality are Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a salesman, and Mama from A Raisin in the Sun. (Kiyak & Hooyman, 1988) & (Masoro, 1995)


Willy Loman is a salesman who is around 60 years old. The 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, portrays him as a delusional salesman, who has spent his whole life chasing the American dream in hopes of success and wealth. However, Loman has reached his age of retirement and has not fulfilled his dream; his failure to do so, has led him to surround himself with illusions. His sons also did not succeed in the way he had hoped for them, and their failure also leads to his slow mental demise. Throughout the play he vacillates back and forth between illusion of the past and the present reality. (Sterling, 2008)


Willy’s illusions consist of images of his dead brother Ben speaking to him, “the Woman” who he had an affair with, a false sense of wealth and how much he is liked by others and an overall blindness to the truth in his life. Willy suffers from forgetfulness, lapses in memory, hallucinations, sudden mood changes, and confusion throughout the play. These conditions are quite similar to those of an Alzheimer’s patient; although, the author never diagnoses Willy’s condition. Based on the play, Willy’s personal regrets have led him to become delusional, however I believe it may not just simply be that, but Willy’s past may have accumulated and have led to a serious medical condition, a condition that his family was unaware of. One of the major unfortunate events that lead up to Willy’s downfall in the end of the play is Willy being fired from his job. The employer tells Willy that it is time for him to take a break and retire, and this crushes Willy. This is an example of ageism, elderly individuals are forced to or expected to retire once they reach a specific age. However, I believe that this is unfair, and individuals should be allowed to work as long as they desire. This shock played a really big role in Willy’s decline in health and I believe he may have also been going through depression as a result, since he was constantly moping about the past and could not move on. I think that the lack of medical treatment and no serious recognition of Willy’s health also played a big role in the character’s demise at the end of the play. (Sterling, 2008) & (Kiyak & Hooyman, 1988)


As Willy is an example of a man whose mental health deteriorated with senescence due to his experiences, Mama, from Hansberry’s a Raisin in the Sun (1959), on the other hand, is a woman whose wisdom is instead sharpened with old age, and her patience and courage are quite admirable! Mama is an African American woman, mother of two, mother-in-law, and a grandmother. The play begins with Mama receiving an insurance check for the death of her husband. Her family composed of her son Walter, daughter Beneatha, Daughter in Law Ruth, and Grandson Travis, all live together in an apartment in the South side of Chicago around the 1950’s. The major conflict in the story consists of deciding what to do with the insurance money. Mama uses some of the money as a down payment for a house in Clybourne Park, a completely white neighborhood. There is a lot of arguing amongst the family against this, but in the end Mama makes the decision anyways because the strong desire for her husband to move up in life before his death. The rest of the money is entrusted with mama’s son, Walter, who ends up investing in a soon to become scam. (Hansberry, 1966)


Basically, the family loses the rest of the money, and it is Mama who keeps the family together. Walter breaks down after being robbed of his money and it is his elderly mother who brings him back up with the hope of a new life in their new house. Walter’s wife Ruth is pregnant but wants to have an abortion because she feels that the new baby will put a financial burden on the family, however mama speaks out against it and provides Ruth with the assurance that everything is going to be ok. Throughout the play, the reader views that even though Mama is the oldest and is a widow, she keeps the family together and provides them with hope to move on. Her physical decline in aging, or senescence, does not affect Mama’s mental health in any way or her motivation to live. I think she is a great example of the elderly in our society who do not let old age affect them in a negative way, and disproves the stereotypes that ageism targets them with. (Hansberry, 1966)


There is a stark contrast between Willy Loman and Mama, even though both are in the same age group within the play. I believe that these characters are reflections of the elderly in our society today, and prove that every elderly individual does not age the same way. Instead it is the experiences one faces, and their own individual personality that determines how they behave in old age. Senescence affected Willy Loman and his mental health in a negative way, and he was unable to pick up the courage to fight the negative events of his life, or keep his family together. On the other hand, senescence did no such thing with Mama, who only showed pure wisdom and endurance for the challenges that she faced. Instead of her family acting as a support group for her, she was the one that supported them and helped them overcome the challenges the family faced. Mama not only disproves the prejudices that ageism brings on, but her character I feel better captures the elderly population sample of our society. Ageism is something that needs to be eliminated from our society, so that all different age groups can live comfortably, and one way to this is via the media. If we stop associating negative portrayals of certain age groups within the media, we can end this discrimination against age. (Masoro, 1995) & (Williamson, 1980)



Hansberry, L. (1966). A Raisin in the Sun. New York: New American Library.

Hooyman, Nancy. Kiyak, H. Asuman. (1988) Social gerontology: a multidisciplinary

perspective Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Masoro, E. J. (1995). Aging. New York: American Physiological Society by Oxford University


Sterling, Eric. (Eds.) (2008) Arthur Miller’s Death of a salesman /Amsterdam : Rodopi,

Williamson, John B., Munley, Anne. Evans, Linda. (1980) Aging and society /New York: Holt,

Rinehart and Winston

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