Age of Iron
by J.M. Coetzee
Analysis: What's Up With the Ending?
OK, let's quickly recap what happens as the novel winds down to a close. Bheki is killed out in Gugulethu; a gang of officers shoots John (or Johannes, or whatever his "real" name happens to be) to death in Mrs. Curren's own home. Florence seems to be totally out of the picture. Mrs. Curren wanders out of her house, sleeps under a bridge, gets attacked by some kids, pees on herself, passes out, and wakes up to find Vercueil ready to rescue her. After spending a huge chunk of the novel dealing with other people's problems, Mrs. Curren now seems to have nobody to focus on but herself.
The last chapter of the novel feels a little bit different in focus from the rest of it because it really does seem like a winding down after all of the horrific things we witnessed in the previous chapters. That isn't to say that nothing happens, though. While Mrs. Curren has been in pain throughout the whole novel, her cancer really takes center stage here. She starts noticing the odd effects that her medicine has on her: she has weird dreams and wakes up finding herself scrawling gibberish on her bedroom wall. As she begins to deal with the very worst of her illness, we see her relationship with Vercueil take on a very different tenor. He takes care of her in a way he never did before: he holds her hand when she's in pain, he washes her underwear (we know, ew. Or, sweet?), and he even sleeps in her bed with her and his dog for warmth.
In a way, doesn't it seem like Vercueil is at the right place at precisely the right time? After all, he goes from being a total nuisance – not to mention an intruder on Mrs. Curren's property – to being the only person who is there for her in her greatest time of need. Yet, his friendship and compassion aside, isn't Vercueil's presence sort of…well…just kind of eerie and weird at times? We spend the whole novel wondering why he's there and what his deal is.
Well, if you've been puzzling over his character through the whole novel, the closing pages sure give you a lot to wrap your mind around. After steadily declining, Mrs. Curren wakes up one morning and sees Vercueil standing in her balcony, the curtains whipping around him in the breeze. She asks him if it's "time," and he doesn't say anything. He just gets in bed with her and holds her, and that's the end. Let's take a closer look at the last lines:
I got back into bed, into the tunnel between the cold sheets. The curtains parted; he came in beside me. For the first time I smelled nothing. He took me in his arms and held me with mighty force, so that the breath went out of me in a rush. From that embrace there was no warmth to be had. (4.212).
What's Vercueil's role here? The end of the novel positions him in a pretty ghostlike role. He's hidden among the curtains, for one thing. Beyond that, his typical physical characteristics seem to have now disappeared – Mrs. Curren can't detect even a hint of his characteristic body odor. Still, is it because Vercueil is a ghost, or because Mrs. Curren's senses are dying as she dies?
Also, can we even definitively say that Mrs. Curren dies as the novel closes? This ending seems pretty clear on one end, but it also seems kind of ambiguous. Does Mrs. Curren die, or is it just the end of the novel? To whom is she speaking these lines? On one hand, she wrote on the previous page that she was going to end her letter. That said, she never actually signed off and said, "OK, this is definitely the end of my letter – good-bye, daughter." If her letter did end on the previous page, it seems totally plausible that Mrs. Curren dies here. But is it possible that she's still writing to her daughter as the novel closes? Age of Iron's treatment of death is sometimes confusing and definitely ambiguous, which is why the end could leave anyone scratching his or her head.