Study Guide

Howl's Moving Castle Old Age

By Diana Wynne Jones

Old Age

There were too many people rushing past, laughing and shouting, far too much noise and jostling. Sophie felt as if the past months of sitting and sewing had turned her into an old woman or a semi-invalid. She gathered her shawl around her and crept along close to the houses, trying to avoid being trodden on by people's best shoes or being jabbed by elbows in trailing silk sleeves. (1.42)

Sophie's views of old women before she actually becomes one are pretty prejudiced: she feels like she has turned into an old woman on the inside because she spends all of her time working inside and she has grown shy and unused to crowds. Her expectation seems to be that this is what old women do: stay inside and pay no attention to the outside world. Of course, she's got a lesson coming to her…

Sophie got herself to the mirror, and found that she had to hobble. The face in the mirror was quite calm, because it was what she expected to see. It was the face of a gaunt old woman, withered and brownish, surrounded by wispy white hair. Her own eyes, yellow and watery, stared out at her, looking rather tragic.

"Don't worry, old thing," Sophie said to the face. "You look quite healthy. Besides, this is much more like you really are." (2.56-57)

Sophie seems to feel this odd sense of inevitability about her transformation, like of course she is an old woman on the outside now. She seems to think that her outer face now matches her insides a lot better than her young face did. Oddly enough though, it's when Sophie looks old on the outside that she stops caring so much about what's proper and starts doing what she really wants. Do you think that there is a real, natural difference in the ways that old and young people tend to behave?

As a girl, Sophie was scared of all dogs. Even as an old woman, she was quite alarmed by the two rows of white fangs in the creature's open jaws. But she said to herself, "The way I am now, it's scarcely worth worrying about," and felt in her sewing pocket for her scissors. She reached into the hedge with the scissors and sawed away at the rope round the dog's neck. (2.66)

Sophie becomes a startlingly brave old woman, and she uses her old age as a chance to lose some of her hang-ups and inhibitions. Do you think that Sophie is specifically and unusually affected by old age, or do you think there are ways in which older people can be braver or less socially anxious than younger people? Why do you think Jones chose this particular form of transformation, instead of, say, turning Sophie into a guy or a ferret or a cat or whatever else she might have used?

"You're still here," he said. "Is something the matter?"

Sophie sniffed. "I'm old," she began.

But it was just as the Witch had said and the fire demon had guessed. Michael said cheerfully, "Well, it comes to us all in time. Would you like some breakfast?" (4.15-7)

When Sophie wakes up after her first night in the moving castle, she realizes that it's not all a dream: she has been transformed into an old woman in one day and she has left the home where she grew up for the first time. But she can't actually explain any of this to Michael, so he thinks that she is just having trouble dealing with the ordinary passage of time, which just makes these shocking shifts harder to handle.

Sophie cackled to herself a little, quite unrepentant. Probably she had let the besom she was using put ideas into her head. But it might persuade Howl to let her stay if everyone thought she was working for him. It was odd. As a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief. (5.13)

Sophie finally gets to relax a bit as an old woman. Not only has she stopped caring quite so much what people think of her as the eldest daughter of three (since there's now about a seventy-five yearage difference between her and Lettie), but she also seems almost immune to embarrassment in this form.

"Oh, why is it that whenever I go to Wales I always come back with a cold!" Howl croaked, and conjured himself a whole wad of tissues.

Sophie snorted.

"Did you say something?" Howl croaked.

"No, but I was thinking that people who run away from everything deserve every cold they get," Sophie said. "People who are appointed to do something by the King and go courting in the rain instead have only themselves to blame." (14.36-39)

Sophie's scolding relationship with Howl is hilarious. She never tries to feed his ego, and she's always cutting him down to size when he is being too melodramatic. And part of the reason that Sophie seems to feel the liberty to treat Howl in this manner is that she's about a million years older than he is. Sophie's banter with Howl sometimes sounds almost big-sisterly, as in this exchange, but it also has an edge of teasing that sets up their later romantic relationship believably.

The air was hot and steamy and filled with the scent of flowers, thousands of them. Sophie nearly said the smell reminded her of the bathroom after Howl had been in it, but she bit it back. The place was truly marvelous. Between the bushes and their loads of purple, red, and white flowers, the wet grass was full of smaller flowers: pink ones with only three petals, giant pansies, wild phlox, lupines of all colors, orange lilies, tall white lilies, irises, and myriad others. There were creepers growing flowers big enough for hats, cornflowers, poppies, and plants with strange shapes and stranger colors of leaves. Though it was not much like Sophie's dream of a garden like Mrs. Fairfax's, she forgot her gruffness and became delighted. (17.48)

Sophie doesn't seem to notice the romantic implications of the fact that Howl just gave her a whole garden full of flowers. But we noticed. Since Sophie is old and feels self-conscious about it (and jealous of Miss Angorian) in the last third of the novel, she doesn't seem to consider the possibility of romance developing between her and Howl seriously—but there are all kinds of clues to Howl's feelings before he actually tells her in the last chapter that they deserve their happily-ever-after.

[Sophie] told herself she had never been happier in her life.

This was not true. Something was wrong, and Sophie could not understand what. Sometimes she thought it was the way no one in Market Chipping recognized her. She did not dare go and see Martha, for fear Martha would not know her either. She did not dare tip the flowers out of the seven-league boots and go and see Lettie for the same reason. She just could not bear either of her sisters to see her as an old woman. (18.8-9)

The funny thing about Sophie's return to Market Chipping is that there are certainly changes—she's not just back in her old home as though nothing is different. However, in a lot of ways, she does return to her old patterns. At the start of the novel, Sophie feels too shy and busy to visit her sisters; here, eighteen chapters later, she feels too embarrassed about her old appearance to see Martha and Lettie. In both cases Sophie's mindset is still interfering with her relationships with her family.

[Sophie] stumped into the bathroom and stared at her withered old face in the mirrors. She picked up one of the packets labeled SKIN and then tossed it down again. Even young and fresh, she did not think her face compared particularly well with Miss Angorian's. "Gah!" she said. "Doh!" She hobbled rapidly back and seized ferns and lilies from the sink. She hobbled them, dripping to the shop, where she rammed them into a bucket of nutrition spell. "Be daffodils!" she told them in a mad, angry, croaking voice. "Be daffodils in June, you beastly things!" (18.60)

This is the first time that we can remember when Sophie actually starts to admit to herself that she has feelings for Howl. Of course it's not flowers and rainbows with Sophie though—instead she gets royally upset because Howl is spending so much time with Miss Angorian and Sophie can't compete with her beauty (she thinks). Still, we think it's progress that Sophie is at least willing to acknowledge that she wants something different from Howl, even if she is so resigned to not getting it that her spells start to misfire as a result.

Being old gave [Sophie] an entirely new view of Fanny. She was a lady who was still young and pretty, and she had found the hat shop as boring as Sophie did. But she had stuck with it and done her best, both with the shop and with the three girls—until Mr. Hatter had died. Then she had suddenly been afraid she was just like Sophie: old with no reason, and nothing to show for it. (20.41)

We don't know if you guys have had this experience yet, but one of the weird things about getting older is that you start to view your parents in entirely unexpected ways. When we were young kids, we thought of our parents as people with lots of authority and responsibility who we expected to know all the answers. As we got older though, we started to realize that our parents were human beings, with many flaws and worries and insecurities of their own.

It can be weird and uncomfortable when you start to look at things from your parents' point of view—and don't get us wrong, sometimes they still drive us absolutely crazy—but Sophie's sudden understanding that her stepmother Fanny had her own frustrations with the hat shop, and that she did the best she could with what she had back then, really strikes a chord with us.

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