Ageism and the older woman in contemporary Australian literature: the tonics and the toxins

Author: Rebecca Carpenter-Mew

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 26 Feb 2027.

Carpenter-Mew, Rebecca, 2023 Ageism and the older woman in contemporary Australian literature: the tonics and the toxins, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Many of our contemporary cultural artifacts display ageist tropes and tendencies, even those that purport to be examples of positive ageing. Literary fiction, both celebrated and not-so-celebrated, contributes to this negative presentation of ageing, particularly in the depiction of women over 50. So ingrained into the literary structure, baked into the treatment of subject matter, and embedded into language is ageism; it is absorbed yet goes unnoticed.

This thesis uses as case studies six Australian novels written between 2018 and 2022. They provide a mosaic of representations of ageing women across contemporary literature genres, four are deemed literary fiction, one is popular fiction, and one is life writing. The first part of the thesis analyses Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend (2019), Melanie Cheng’s Room for a Stranger (2019) and Susan Johnson’s From Where I Fell (2021), which I argue undo their professed positive treatment of subject matter with the literary structures that are vehicles for ageist thinking. Narrative strategies on which authors rely such as voice, descriptive density and metonyms, intertextuality and plot endings carry with them a DNA of benevolent ageism, good-natured in intent, but that feed negative codes while depicting them as inescapable and natural. My research finds that these benevolently ageist works are largely written by women in midlife projecting forward their fears of an older age thereby reinscribing negative depictions of older women for their receiving communities.

In contrast to this, I explore three novels, one literary, one popular, one life writing, whose authors write from varying stages of lived experience of older age; The Labyrinth (2020) by Amanda Lohrey, A Month of Sundays (2018) by Liz Byrski, and Night Fishing: Stingrays, Goya and the singular life (2019) by Vicki Hastrich. I demonstrate how these authors enliven the literary treatment of older women; they agitate socially determined scripts of ageing to rewrite and refashion age for their own purposes. The rhizomic nature of their storytelling illustrates the importance of engaging in creative practices and maintaining continuity of self across the life course which brings meaning to a life-affirming present. Such approaches have the capacity to model alternative, constructive pathways for readers as they navigate their own ageing in an increasingly ageing society.

Keywords: Ageism, older women, contemporary Australian literature, narrative strategies, lived experience, narrative voice, descriptive density, intertextuality, prolepses, creative engagements.

Subject: English thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2023
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Associate Professor Tully Barnett