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  • Reflections on Benjamin Button
  • Henry Alexander (bio)


Benjamin Button was born at the age of seventy and as the years accumulated, grew younger physically. There are in his life three separate lines or threads. His chronological age begins in September of 1860 and terminated seventy years later. His "bodily age" consists of those stages of physical changes and of the different ways that he looked to others and to himself. In 1860, he was an old man; his hair was sparse, scraggly, and nearly white; he had "a long smoke-colored beard"; his eyes were faded, watery, and tired; his teeth were ancient; his skin wrinkled, his voice had a cracked quaver and he had an aged stoop, even though he was five feet eight inches tall. From that time on, he gradually and steadily lost these characteristics of old age and became younger looking both to others and to himself until that time in 1930 when, an infant in his white crib, everything "faded out altogether from his mind." Finally, the third thread in Button's life consists of various psychological stages, attitudes, and feelings: his querulousness, his compliancy, his inquisitiveness, his assertiveness, his love for his wife, his business ability, his generosity, his enthusiasm for pleasure, his discontent with home life, his love of military activity and excitement, his delight in the company [End Page 1] of young women, the pleasure he took in his youthful appearance, his ambition to succeed at Harvard, the humiliations he suffered, his childish cheerfulness. These three threads in Benjamin Button's life—his chronological age, his bodily age, and his psychological age are seldom congruent and frequently unharmoniously interwoven.

There are times when in ordinary life we may distinguish one or another of these threads out of a person's life. We may on occasion comment that someone looks so much older than she is where physical hardship, unusual sickness, or emotional pressures have left their scars. We may remark that another is so very young for her age, where, for example, inexperience, callousness, naivete show themselves in a person whose age would not lead us to expect such traits. We may remark upon how well one has kept oneself in shape when one's physique, muscle tone, and endurance are those of a decidedly younger person. Sometimes, certain traits of character—crabbiness, bossiness, old womanishness, crankiness, arbitrariness—associated with the elderly, may unexpectedly emerge in young people. Sometimes, traits perhaps conventionally associated with youth may crop up at a later stage of life, for example, carelessness, daredeviltry, sensuality, self-absorption, etc. The theme comes out in cases where we are surprised or shocked by the discrepancies between age and appearance or by changes in appearance or by psychological shifts which strike one as dissonant with one's own or another's age. There must be numerous variations on such discrepancies and they crop up from time to time in the ordinary course of things.

But Benjamin Button's life was not ordinary. Those three threads of a person's life which may on occasion be singled out or contrasted are in his case systematically independent of one another. His years bear little relation to his physical age. His psychological states reflect little, if anything, of his years. Except for his middle years (between thirty-five and forty, say), there was little congruence between his chronological age, on the one hand, and his physical appearance or his psychological life, on the other.

This dissonance between physical and chronological age has its ironical twists. For instance, when Benjamin was about twenty (in years), he met Hildegarde Moncrief (to whom he was later married). During their first meeting, she mistook him for his father's brother and she told Benjamin that fifty is "the mellow age" and that she "loves fifty." Of course, he appears to be a man of fifty, but he has forgotten how he appears [End Page 2] to others. He even "longed passionately to be fifty" (p. 73).1 The irony is that to Hildegarde and to everyone else, he was fifty.

One anomaly that runs through much of Benjamin Button's life is his unawareness as to how...


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