A Meditation on Old Age

Ian McEwan’s Saturday is a compelling meditation on fate, life, family, and aging. The novel eloquently captures various complex human emotions: a father’s quiet sadness at his daughter’s loss of innocence, the despair of watching one’s parent slowly descend into dementia, the comfortable, familiar intimacy between husband and wife. Although the pacing of the book was slow at times, the character-driven plot never seemed dull or cumbersome, thanks to McEwan’s shimmering prose and his deft understanding of human psychology.

In particular, I found the ending of the book especially moving. The final pages of the novel were riddled with poignant insights about the human condition, specifically old age. Throughout much of the novel, Henry Perowne is a vital, powerful man, oblivious to his middle-agedness, seeming to possess an almost superhuman capacity for vigor. Throughout the course of a day, he battles robustly on the squash court despite sleep deprivation; gets in a fight with a group of young ne’er-do-wells; fends off a home intruder; and, when all is said and done, he still manages to rouse himself out of bed to perform brain surgery in the middle of the night. His inexhaustible energy makes him seem somewhat superhuman, certainly not your typical 50-year-old.

Perowne seems to regard himself as invincible: at one point, he regards himself in the mirror and is pleased to find his muscles intact, his physical form still a specimen of youth and power. Leaving his mother’s nursing home, he is guilty to feel a, “lightness in his step when he turns his back and walks away…and embraces the freedoms that can be [his mother’s]” (156). Aren’t we all, in some regards, guilty of this? Of taking our youth for granted? When I’m around my grandparents, I never fully appreciate my ability to navigate stairs and plop into chairs and hop out of cars, movements that are both difficult and painful for my grandparents to accomplish.

At the end of the novel, we mark a change in Perowne. As a result of the day’s exhilarating events, he comes to recognize more acutely the fleetingness and fragility of life. There is a particularly powerful passage in which Perowne anticipates his mother’s impending death:

“But from where he stands up here there are things he can see that he knows must happen. Soon it will be his mother’s time, the message will come from home, or they’ll send for him, and he and his family will be sitting by her bed, in her tiny room, with her ornaments, drinking the thick brown tea, watching the last of her, the husk of the old swimmer, shrink into the pillows. At the thought, he feels nothing now, but he knows the sorrow will surprise him, because it’s happened before” (282).

I don’t know about you, but this passage gave me chills. It is a stark, haunting expression of mortality and death. As much as we would like to think of ourselves as immortal, to think that we will be able to play squash and run marathons well into our fifties, someday we will all be mere “husks” of our former selves, our vitality sucked from us, sunken wearily into our pillows. Reading this made me stop and ponder the notion of getting old, something that isn’t exactly on the forefront of a 20-year-old college student’s mind. I apologize if this might be a pessimistic note to end on, but I was truly impressed by McEwan’s ability to reflect on complex subjects such as death, illness, and old age.

—Anna D.

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~ by ardickens on April 19, 2012.

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