The PDF in which this article appears can be found in Bifocal Vol. 44 Issue 3.
When aging appears as a theme in fiction, it is often synonymous with loss—loss of health, of competence, of vigor, of companionship, of life. While it is certainly a fact of being that old age brings its own particular losses and anxieties, authors of books and television shows alike too often use these losses and anxieties to define, rather than develop, older characters. One dazzling exception to this tendency is Elizabeth Strout, arguably one of the greatest American writers alive today, whose 2021 novel Oh William! filters the complexities of love, marriage, divorce, aging, motherhood, and poverty through the consciousness of Lucy Barton, a recently widowed writer in her mid-sixties who has begun to spend more time with her first husband, the titular William. Lucy lacks the causticness of Strout’s more widely known protagonist, Olive Kitteridge; she faces the world with a neurotic perceptiveness, combined with a (self-admitted) self-absorption, which Strout embodies in free-wheeling, well-wrought stream-of-consciousness prose. As Lucy attempts to convey to the reader the difficulties her ex-husband, William, has experienced, she unfurls herself and her own difficulties—like any human being, she cannot muse on a subject for very long without overshadowing it with her own concerns. Strout’s understanding of this human tendency to always center the self is perhaps at the heart of her firm grasp on the human condition and all its many facets—including aging.
Lucy does not explicitly fret about growing old; however, she makes note of William’s consternation about the potential for his health to decline as he ages. William is in his early seventies, and he worries he might one day sit on a bench in Central Park with a caregiver, like the people he sees each morning on his way to work. To cope with this image of declining health and independence, he prides himself in his ability to outflank younger people as he walks down the street. Significantly, Lucy herself at one point watches an older woman with a walker make her way down the street, and, unlike William, she does not imbue this image—of an older woman with age-related physical limitations—with negativity. Lucy is a people-watcher, and the woman with a walker is yet another person to pass through her consciousness. Perhaps Strout intends the reader to infer Lucy subconsciously imagines herself like the woman, much as her ex-husband has imagined himself (to his horror) like men with walkers; more likely, however—considering the directness of Lucy’s stream-of-consciousness narration—the lack of remark is just that: an absence. Lucy, unlike her ex-husband, does not seem so afraid of the physical aspect of aging.
More so than his imagined future health, William bemoans what he believes to be the end of his career—he is a scientist, but his most recent paper has found little success, and, as he nears retirement, he comes to terms with the likelihood that he will never be renowned. This sense of loss clouds his conversations with Lucy, and it seems to loom large in his mind. Still, he continues to work in his laboratory. Strout conveys a complex type of age-related loss through William’s and his work. William knows he has made meaningful contributions to science, he knows he is respected in his field, and he is able to go to his laboratory and continue engaging with his passion. His sense of loss resides almost entirely in his ego: he is sad he will likely never receive a Nobel Prize; a molecular process will not bear his name. Rather than dismiss this sense of loss as narcissistic, however, Strout gives it legitimacy. While the reader knows Lucy frequently feels invisible (because she herself tells us), it seems William, as he nears retirement, also feels he is becoming invisible. Lucy’s sense of invisibility stems from an impoverished, abusive childhood, and Strout does treat her feelings as invalid; William’s sense of impending invisibility, though it comes from a different place, is explored with similar compassion.
Aging is a constant theme in Strout’s work, and she addresses it as she does every other aspect of life—as something that is common but experienced alone. She guides the reader towards understanding each of her characters and their reactions to events, big and small; she does not place value judgments on their different reactions. Lucy and William respond to aging much like they do the sight of a homeless veteran’s garbage-filled car in a parking lot: differently, and in a way that is informed by their lives leading up to that point. It is this nuance that makes Strout a great writer, and a great writer of aging.