Happy Birthday to me. 38. As I look around the pages of books that encompass my life, I find very few heroes, heroines, or even villains my exact age. To me, this is disappointing.
Thirty-five was my favorite birthday of literary significance with Lady Bracknell of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest boldly proclaiming, “Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years. Lady Dumbleton is an instance in point. To my own knowledge she has been thirty-five ever since she arrived at the age of forty, which was many years ago now.” This is the goal, people.
Lady Brett Ashley of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is also 35 and “damned, good looking” according to the narrator. I’ll take that.
Even the “This is Us” triplets just turned 37. But I can’t find any 38’s.
I know they are out there, but authors often keep ages of characters fairly vague.
Being in your thirties in literature seems to be primetime to make bad decisions, have a crisis of conscience, or, quite literally, die. Sometimes it is a gun, sometimes a sword, and sometimes a noose, but the outcome is the same.
Hamlet’s age is never directly stated, but based on textual evidence we can guess that he is about 30. The average life-expectancy for the time when the play is set is around 35. By this measure, Hamlet was well-overdue for a mid-life crisis induced by dear-old mom and his new uncle-father.
John Proctor of The Crucible is around 30, while his witchy mistress, Abigail Williams, who my students always loved to hate, is only 17. It was difficult path, but Proctor finally realizes his own worth and forgiveness as he will not sign a false confession to save his own life. “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!”
Jay Gatsby is 32. Apparently that is enough time to fall in love, complete military service, totally re-invent yourself, and build a life to attempt to repeat the past. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out for Jay either.
Walter Lee Younger from A Raisin in the Sun is 35. Walter has lived a “Dream Deferred” for too many years and then loses the family’s insurance money. Finally, a bit of redemption for a thirty-something happens when he takes a stand for himself and his family.
To my horror, although never specifically stated in the text, estimates put the clock stopping, one-shoe wearing, wedding dress donning Mrs. Havisham of Great Expectations between 37-early 50s. Am I seriously the same age as Mrs. Havisham?
So what does all of this tell me?
Maybe there is not a 38-year-old lead character in my arsenal of books because 38 is when you figure it all out, learn to live a balanced life, and have fun doing it.
And that would be a fairly boring book.