"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 pro...
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...e ending of the book provides the evidence for this statement – in the final scene, which could or could not be interpreted as Curren’s death, Vercueil hugs her with an embrace from which “there was no warmth to be had” (198). Though she spends the last days of her life exploring the need for compassion and warmth between humans, she slips into death with only one person, who could conceivably be thought of as no one other than herself, in a physical display of love that fails to produce any heat. Her portrait shows her soul for what it is – stunted and unable to create warmth, in the end even for herself. J. M. Coetzee plays with the dichotomy of hard versus soft in South African society throughout the novel, and the finally completes the journey by reflecting the unresolved nature of these larger problems in the climactic moment of Elizabeth Curren’s lonely death.
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