Sunday, February 15, 2015

Novels about Ripeness in Late Life

Photo by Nico Aguilera.
Baltimore Sun ran an article about the increased presence of novels focused on late life. The article introduced me to a new term,


which was coined in 1992 by literary critic Constance Rook as a companion to the more familiar term Bildungsroman.

Bildungsroman refers to stories where the protagonist is coming of age, growing, developing or "building" towards adulthood.

One of the most classic examples is Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

A Vollendungsroman. . . is a novel of winding down or completion. It focuses on the challenges presented in late life, chiefly to "discover the tension between affirmation and regret." (Rook qtd. in footnote 49 of Rita Caviagoli's Women of a Certain Age, on p. 203)

Books I've Read that Meet the Criteria for Vollendungsroman novels (in reverse chronology):

Tyler, Anne. A Spool of Blue Thread. (2015) Review

Haruf, Kent. Our Souls at Night (2015) GR Review and Blog Review

Healey, Emma. Elizabeth Is Missing (2014). Review

Ford, Richard. Let Me Be Frank with You (2014)  Review

McFarlane, Fiona. The Night Guest (2013)  GR Review and Blog Review

Haruf, Kent. Benediction (2012). GR Review and Blog Review

Shin, Kyun-Sook. Please Look After Mom (2011). Review

Mosley, Walter. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (2010).  Review

Dallas, Sandra. Prayers for Sale (2009). Review

Stout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge (2008). GR Review and Blog Review

Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead (2004).  Review

Berry, Wendell. The Memory of Old Jack. (1974). GR Review and Blog Review

Laurence, Margaret. The Stone Angel (1964). Review

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886). Review

Books I have yet to read that I've seen on lists about Vollendungsroman novels:

Carillo, Herman G. Losing My Espanish (2004)

Fischer, Christoph. Time to Let Go (2014)

Jonasson, Jonas. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared

McCorkle, Jill. Life after Life (2013)

Miller, Sue. The Distinguished Guest (1999)

O'Nan, Stuart. Emily Alone (2011)

Pym, Barbara. Quartet in Autumn (1977)

Spark, Muriel. Momento Mori (1958)

Stegner, Wallace. The Spectator Bird (1990)

Mainly an Academic Term--for now

I did a quick online search to learn more about how Vollendungsroman is being employed.  It's mainly confined to academic conferences, entries in academic reference books and literary criticism at this point. But I plan on keeping an eye open for increased use in mainstream media.  I do want to share the chapter titles for a Ph.D. thesis that I found. Heather Gardiner's 1997 thesis The Portrayal of Old Age (available as a PDF download) has these instructive chapter titles:
  1. Images of Confinement: Order and Control in the Literature of Old Age
  2. Looking Back in Old Age: Ordering and Retrospect in the Journey of Life
  3. The Wisdom of Old Age: Finding Meaning in the Life Experience
  4. Vitality and Maturity: Coming to Terms with Death
  5. Old and and Resurrection: Another Look at Reality
I can anticipate her arguments for these themes based on the novels and films I've seen that focus on aging.  I probably won't be familiar with the English-Canadian literature that serves as her primary texts (aside from Stone Angel), but I am eager to read her thesis.

More to Emerge? 

As the Baby Boomers age, I imagine there will be more and more occasion for its use as applied to novels, poetry and perhaps to plays and films as well.

For the past five years, I have been trying to read as many novels about late life as I can manage. As a former college English teacher, I see value in literary representations of real-life challenges.  Reading literature gives us an opportunity to sit back and meditate more deeply and with a little more objectivity--or at least with some foreknowledge--than trying to tackle our own life's situation in the moment without warning or insight.

And now there's a specific genre for such books.  Who knew?

If you have recommendations for novels (not memoirs) that depict a protagonist with late-life challenges/perspective, please share the author/title in the comment section. Thanks!

Since writing this post, I found this October 1, 2015 essay in the NYT  by Ceridwin Dovey on the topic of how age is represented in fiction (and a bit about film).  It's interesting. Dovey suggests another term for novels of ripening:  
Forget the bildungsroman. We are on the cusp of the age of the reifungsroman—the literary scholar Barbara Frey Waxman’s term for the “novel of ripening.”


Novels about Men Facing Death
Books about Dementia
Movies about Mature Men Preserving
Films about Aging


  1. Wonderful example of reifungsroman in Afrikaans: Die Dao van Daan van der Walt (Lodewyk G. du Plessis). I'll be writing on this book from a gerontological perspective for a MA thesis.

    1. Annette: Thank you for the tip. I'll see if I can get a hold of a copy. All my best to you as you work on your thesis.

  2. of main focusses is older women in literature.Has at least fifty titles.Which I am working through.Quite optimistic at 73!