Essay on Elizabeth Curren in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron

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Elizabeth Curren in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron

"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
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Within the first few pages of the book, Curren already begins to address the issue of Cape Town’s troubled black youth when she admits her fear of “the sullen-mouthed boys, rapacious as sharks… scorning childhood” (7). Their hurried maturation into under-nurtured adults disturbs her; she fears that in their rush to don the role of fighting adults they fail to develop fully the more sensitive parts of the soul, a condition that could have adverse consequences on the future of South Africa. Her reservations lead her into conflict with members of the black community, including her housekeeper Florence. Florence’s child Bheki and, even more drastically, his young friend both display the symptoms Elizabeth Curren worries about, but when she voices her grievances on the subject, she is met with anger and iciness from Florence. She then describes both the housekeeper and the children in terms of iron, as living in an “age of iron” (50). In contrast to this hard attitude, she advocates a warmer approach with place for more compassion and love; later in the novel when she reproaches her daughter for a lack of this aspect of humanity, she describes it as a “loving-yielding that brings love to life” (139). However, though Curren recognizes the need for this side to human relations, she herself, immersed as she is in Cape Town society, is equally

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