Study Guide

Age of Iron Mortality

By J.M. Coetzee

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This was the day when I had the news from Dr. Syfret. The news was not good, but it was mine, for me, mine only, not to be refused. It was for me to take in my arms and fold to my chest and take home, without headshaking, without tears. "Thank you, doctor," I said. "Thank you for being frank." "We will do everything we can," he said, "we will tackle this together." But already, behind the comradely front, I could see he was withdrawing. Sauve qui peut. His allegiance to the living, not the dying. (1.4)

Mrs. Curren has been dealing with her cancer for a while, but now she knows for sure that she's going to die from it. What's interesting here is that Mrs. Curren senses that her relationship with her doctor changes the moment he tells her that he can't save her. It seems like he's given up.

The first task laid on me, from today: to resist the craving to share my death. Loving you, loving life, to forgive the living and take my leave without bitterness. To embrace death as my own, mine alone. (1.12)

Mrs. Curren's attitude toward her death is a complicated one. Can you imagine how awful it would feel to know that you were dying while having to try to not bring everyone else around you down with you? Mrs. Curren is determined not to make her own mortality someone else's problem.

We sicken before we die so that we will be weaned from our body. The milk that nourished us grows thin and sour; turning away from the breast, we begin to be restless for a separate life. Yet this first life, this life on earth, on the body of earth – will there, can there ever be a better? Despite all the glooms and despairs and rages, I have not let go of my love of it. (1.55)

Mrs. Curren philosophizes about how the slow process of dying prepares one for death. We have to ask, though: has she ever thought about how other people die in quick, sudden ways that don't give them that opportunity to come to terms with their mortality?

"When I was a child," I said, "I used to do downhills on a bicycle with no brakes to speak of. It belonged to my elder brother. He would dare me. I was completely without fear. Children cannot conceive of what it is to die. It never crosses their minds that they may not be immortal." (1.68)

Now that Mrs. Curren is dying, she starts to reflect on other people's attitudes towards death, including children's views. She used to behave recklessly as a kid without thinking twice about the consequences. Doesn't it kind of seem like Mrs. Curren sees death all over the place now?

"I think of prisoners standing on the brink of the trench into which their bodies will tumble. They plead with the firing squad, they weep, they joke, they offer bribes, they offer everything they possess: the rings off their fingers, the clothes off their backs. The soldiers laugh. For they will take it all anyway, and the gold from their teeth too. (1.139)

In short, you can't cheat death.

My existence from day to day has become a matter of averting my eyes, of cringing. Death is the only truth left. Death is what I cannot bear to think. At every moment when I am thinking of something else, I am not thinking death, am not thinking the truth. (1.140)

Jeez, how awful does Mrs. Curren's life sound? She can't enjoy the time she has left on Earth because she's thinking about death all the time. On top of all this, she's convinced that when she's thinking about something else, she's living a lie.

There is something about it that does not bear thinking of. To have fallen pregnant with these growths, these cold, obscene swellings; to have carried and carried this brood beyond any unnatural term, unable to bear them, unable to sate their hunger: children inside me eating more every day, not growing but bloating, toothed, clawed, forever cold and ravenous. Dry, dry: to feel them turning at night in my dry body, not stretching and kicking as a human child does but changing their angle, finding a new place to gnaw. (2.200)

Mrs. Curren has a tendency to describe her cancer as a kind of pregnancy. In most cases, pregnancy is a way to perpetuate life: a child grows inside a woman and then is born. Here, Mrs. Curren turns that image upside-down. The thing growing inside her isn't going to create new life; instead, it's going to bring about her death.

Inside the hall was a mess of rubble and charred beams. Against the far wall, shielded from the worst of the rain, were five bodies neatly laid out. The body in the middle was that of Florence's Bheki. He still wore the gray flannel trousers, white shirt, and maroon pullover of his school, but his feet were bare. His eyes were open and staring, his mouth open too. The rain had been beating on him for hours, on him and his comrades, not only here but wherever they had been when they met their deaths; their clothes, their very hair, had a flattened, dead look. In the corners of his eyes there were grains of sand. There was sand in his mouth. (3.158)

We spend so much time immersed in thoughts of Mrs. Curren's death that we forget how fragile other people's lives are too – anyone can die. While Mrs. Curren's death is long and drawn out, Bheki's death is sudden and violent.  He doesn't get the same opportunity to come to terms with his death – it just happens to him.

I might as well ask: Do the dead know they are dead? No: to the dead it is not given to know anything. But in our dead sleep we may at least be visited by intimations. I have intimations older than any memory, unshakable, that once upon a time I was alive. Was alive and then was stolen from life. From the cradle a theft took place: a child was taken and a doll left in its place to be nursed and reared, and that doll is what I call I. (3.210)

As Mrs. Curren gets closer and closer to her own death, she starts wondering more and more about what life after death is like. She ponders whether she'll be able to sense anything.  She also seems to be thinking really carefully about how fleeting life is. Her current self is a figure who replaces her former childhood self.

There may be no way of keeping a space in the heart private for you or anyone else. All may be erased. All. It is a terrible thought. Enough to make one rebel, to make one say: If that is how things are to be, I withdraw: here is my ticket, I am handing it back. But I doubt very much that the handing back of tickets will be allowed, for whatever reason. (4.128)

Here, Mrs. Curren talks to Vercueil about what the afterlife might be like. She wants to promise to watch over him, but she doesn't know if it's possible. In fact, she wonders if the afterlife is even something she wants to experience.

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