The Limits of Development? Old Age and the Dementia Narrative
In Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre we encounter illness on a symbolical level in the tragic story of Clorinda and Tancred as well as in the painting of the sick prince. Illness is dramatised in the novel as change, it provides narrative pauses and casts Wilhelm in the role of sympathetic listener. The stories of female formation in Wilhelm Meister juxtapose Aurelie’s illness as decline narrative with illness as a form of communication in “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul”. While illness is not a major concern in Burney’s Evelina, the vulnerability of the aged female body is a focus in the scene of the ‘old women’s race’. In its concern with the reform of Lady Delacour’s misdirected development, Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda gives an example of a moralised illness narrative which attaches disease closely to the Bildungsroman plot. In her later novel Helen, illness and pain are related in more complex ways to the developmental plot, in which the ageing body is no longer moralised. The novel illustrates how the representation of illness changes during the nineteenth century, in which disease may be a reaction to psychological pressures but can also be a constitutional fact completely unrelated to a
character’s moral value. This representational shift toward realist conventions can also be seen at work in the way in which Anne Elliot’s feelings of pain and pleasure shape her subjective ageing process in Austen’s Persuasion. Whereas Dickens in Great Expectations employs the brief episode of Pip’s illness after Magwitch’s death to represent his temporary regression to childhood, thus underlining the novel’s pessimistic view of ageing, Casaubon’s heart disease in Middlemarch is turned into a metaphor for his lacking emotional resonance. In Eliot’s novel, illness representation is thus individualised to become “a test of moral character” (Sontag, Illness 41).