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^ Death Labors Joanne Trautmann Banks We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. -T. S. EÜot, "Little Gidding"* They look so different on the page, these two seemingly similar stories.1 Tolstoy's paragraphs are long, his sentences complete and declarative , his words richly abundant. His page is filled in. In contrast, Olsen works with empty space as if it were as important an element as language. Many of her sentences are fragments, italicized, parenthetical. These are not only styles of writing for Tolstoy and Olsen; they are also, as I hope to show, styles of living for their main characters. It is the deepest irony that in order to die well, the characters must reconstitute— even repudiate—the very styles that the authors have used so brilliantly. It is all, finally, a matter of identity. Can these two people, Olsen's old woman2 and Tolstoy's Ivan üych (or can any of us, for that matter), die as they (or we) have lived? Can they carry into the last scene of their lives' dramas the same roles, the same selves, that they have built with such energy in the preceding acts? Tolstoy and Olsen say "no." The people who go to meet death in these stories are not the people who existed before their illnesses intervened. Cancer has challenged every dimension of their lives. Before her cancer, the old woman in "Riddle" had largely based her identity on her service to others, rather than on her own primary needs. The field theory psychologists, who believe that one's personhood can be explained as the focus of one's relationships, would probably find her a clear instance of their concepts.3 As Olsen develops her, however, the elements of her identity are loosely connected. There are significant spaces * Excerpt from "Little Gidding" in Four Quartets, copyright © 1943 by T. S. Eliot and renewed 1971 by Esme Valerie Eliot, reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. Literature and Medicine 9 (1990) 162-71 © 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Joanne Trautmann Banks 163 between them. There is a literal one, for instance, in her geographical identity. The early part of her life was spent in revolutionary Russia; all the rest, in America. Metaphorically, the experience in America is separated by a vast space from her intellectual, political life in Russia. Even apparently intimate spaces are wide. To her daughter's statement that the mother lived all her life for people, she replies, " 'Not with' " (p. 76, italics mine). The spaces are not precisely voids, any more than the spaces between Olsen's paragraphs mark major hiatuses. Some sort of meaning inheres in them. But, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard 's play of that name about Hamlet, the old woman has perhaps not been the main character in her own drama. She has had to work out her identity in the parentheses, as it were, between other people's utterances. She has found her self in life's interstices. The same phenomenon can be described in terms of space's correlative , time. There was never time in the old woman's life to finish a project in the way she would have preferred, seldom time even to finish reading a story by her favorite, Chekhov, let alone live a life of the mind. She believes that all her life she has been "forced to move to the rhythms of others" (p. 68),4 and thus there are major discontinuities in her experience of her self. "Discontinuity"—thaf s Olsen's term. In her study of the barriers to creativity, she suggests that discontinuity is a pattern imposed on women's lives.5 In context, it's clear that she means women whose lives are defined for many of their adult years by maternal exigencies and the Sisyphean tasks of daily housekeeping. She cites the old woman in "Riddle " as an instance. In her case, the discontinuities and spaces are the inevitable consequences of having so many children to raise in a condition of constant poverty, and with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 162-171
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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