Noticing Signs and Stereotypes of Aging
Representations and Performance of Mind and Body in Tolstoj's War and Peace
Russian literature has long provided a window into Russia's attitudes toward aging, offering images of the performance of the aging body and mind. In an endeavor to contemplate, analyze, and examine representations and misrepresentations of the aging process, this paper applies literary gerontology, a relatively new field of scholarship, to constructs of aging in Russian culture and society. It examines how older male and female characters are “noticed” by an astute 19th century observer of human development, keenly aware that contingency may trigger both physical and mental change over the novel's 15-year timeframe (1805-1820). Initiated in the salon conversations of the opening pages, Tolstoy's narrator keenly notices particular signs, gradual changes, and indeed, how the extraordinary is admired as “ordinary.” Aging may be established through signs of physical description (i.e. “wrinkles” serve to identify four distinct psychological types through their physiognomy), or emerge in conversation, with reference to mood, gestures, and to both expected and unexpected behaviors (both age-appropriate and deviant behaviors, i.e. dementia). Language also plays an essential role in defining character, while age consciousness matters in the seemingly stable worlds of salon society and family gatherings; even on the battlefield “age” is a topic of conversation. Changes associated with the life course are observed in particular detail in the male and female heads of the major families as well as in depictions of friends, relatives, acquaintances and servants, both in confronting everyday life expectations and through shocks to their psyches due to personal experiences confronting the accidents of history. Although aging may be perceived in incremental, predictable stages, overall the processes of aging are shown to affect each character uniquely, each one representing an alternative possibility of aging, e.g. Countess Rostova, Marya Dmitrievna, old Count Bolkonsky, Commander in Chief Kutuzov, or Yakov Alpatych.