Study Guide

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand Old Age

By Helen Simonson

Old Age

Six years [Nancy] had been gone. Now Bertie was gone, too. They had left him all alone, the last family member of his generation. He clasped his hands to still a small tremor. (1.14)

This novel begins with a tragic note, one that most books don't usually have, because most books, like most movies, don't star anyone over the age of 40. The Major is in his late sixties, and a lot of his friends and family have started to die off.

Yet today—overcome by the strain he supposed—he had to pause halfway up the stairs to catch his breath. It occurred to him to wonder what would happen if he passed out and fell. (2.126)

Being old, the Major's life has become an "I've fallen and I can't get up" commercial.

"My dear Mrs. Ali, I would hardly refer to you as old," [the Major] said. "You are in what I would call the very prime flowering of mature womanhood." It was a little grandiose but he hoped to surprise a blush. Instead she laughed out loud at him. (5.70)

The Major may have gray hair, and he may not have as much pep in his step, but he sure is still on top of his flirt game.

"I do believe that there are those few who continue to believe in the England that Kipling loved. Unfortunately, we are a dusty bunch of relics." (8.72)

The Major believes that tradition is closely tied in with age, so as the older generation dies off, he thinks that many traditions will start to disappear. But why is that so? If traditions are so old, then they must have been around way longer than the Major's generation. Is there something about Roger's generation in particular that is making the traditions die off?

"It is a fact of life, I suppose, that the younger generation must try to take over and run the lives of their elders." (8.86)

Mrs. Ali shares the Major's sentiment, adding to it that it's not just old people dying off that kills traditions; it's also the fact that younger people want to take over.

Roger always became impatient when [the Major] drifted off into thinking. He seemed to view it as a sign of early-onset dementia. (8.91)

Roger is totally ageist: he blames anything he thinks his father is doing wrong on old age, and he thinks that he can do everything better just because he is younger.

"Look here, it's all very tidy and convenient to see the world in black and white," said the Major, trying to soften his tone slightly. "It's a particular passion of young men eager to sweep away their dusty elders." (14.113)

As he has grown older, the Major has started to see things less in black-and-white and more in shades of grey. And we're not just talking about his hair color.

The age of great men, when a single mind of intelligence and vision might change the destiny of the world, was long gone. He had been born into a much smaller age, and no amount of daydreaming would change the facts. (15.4)

Here we see the Major engaging in a popular old-person pastime: longing for the golden days. But the fact is that more people means change is harder. It was easier to make change in the Major's day in part because there were fewer people to influence.

"At our age, surely there are better things to sustain us, to sustain a marriage, than the brief flame of passion?" (20.37)

At the end of the book, the Major seems to give in to old age, but Grace, who is just as old as the Major is, gets him to reconsider. She tells him that old age is no excuse to give up searching for passion.

"Your mother is gone," Roger," the Major said. "Your uncle Bertie is gone. I don't think I should waste any more time." (20.127)

A young person doesn't have the same perspective on life as an older person, because most of their friends and family members are still alive. As people start to buy the farm in rapid succession, the finiteness of time becomes more apparent.