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Each year witnesses hundreds of new titles on the subject of retirement. Most are about finances. Some are optimistic: “Retire at 25 and Live It Up!” Some, wildly so: “Will I Ever Be Able to Retire? How to Start Saving at 75!” Others are monitory: “Destitution on the Horizon: The Hidden Perils of Early Retirement.”
If you Google “preparing for retirement,” little comes up but information about financial planning. But what about preparing the heart, the mind, and the soul for retirement? How do you say goodbye to a career that has anchored you for decades? How do you leave a job you never especially liked without bitterness for wasted years? How can you retire with grace, dignity, and joy?
When in moral doubt, literature often provides timely answers. But even literature fails us when it comes to questions about the ethics and metaphysics of retirement—the soul questions, if you will. Why?
Before the 20th century, people rarely had the fiscal luxury to retire, at least in our modern sense of the word. Those who could afford to stop working had never really worked in the first place: they lived off hereditary estates. Those who had to work could rarely afford to stop. When ill health finally forced them to, they lived with their children. Or wound up in poorhouses. Or worse.
The retirement to which modern Americans, Britons, and Western Europeans now aspire is a product of the social, political, and medical changes of the 20th century, and with those changes, a small but fascinating new genre appeared on the literary horizon: the novel of retirement.
This course will examine some of the best novels about retired people, beginning with William Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, and its myriad reflections on retirement, forgiveness, renewal, and the theater of life. Then we’ll fasten our reading seatbelts for Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up, a sardonic novel instructor John Watkins refers to as “a gruesome little comedy about several pensioners sharing a cottage and persisting in the most annoying habits.” We will finish off with Elizabeth Taylor’s brilliant character study of eccentricity in old age, Mrs. Palfry at the Claremont.
Required: William Shakespeare, The Tempest (any edition); Kingsley Amis, Ending Up (NYRB Classics, reprint, 2015); and Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfry at the Claremont (Virago, reprint, 2006).
John Watkins is Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota, where he also teaches in the Department of History. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Arthur “Red” Motley Exemplary Teaching Award, the University of Minnesota Morse-Alumni Award, and the Ruth Christie Award for Excellence in Teaching.