It’s December, so writing a blog post about literature’s May-December romances seems appropriate. But please don’t wait until May to read this!
Relationships between people who are 15, 30, or even 50 years apart in age crop up a number of times in fiction, as they do in real life. Men are often the older party in our sexist society, but sometimes the roles are reversed.
I personally prefer couples to be roughly the same age (my wife and I are three years apart). They’re more likely to have similar maturity levels, and share cultural and sociopolitical touchstones. Plus there’s a better chance that the ravages of age will take their toll at roughly the same time. It’s more fun acting out The Three Musketeers if you both have canes to use as swords!
But literature’s May-December couples (or May-August couples) can certainly be compelling from a dramatic standpoint. Will a relationship with a large age gap last? Does the different chronological prism of each lover make for a relationship that’s less compatible or more interesting? Does the younger person want financial security? A mentor? A surrogate “parent”? Does the older person want sex? To relive his or her youth? Have power over another? Have someone to take care of them in old age? If the older person is male, does he want another biological child or his first biological child? What do the couples’ parents and friends think of the wide life-span range? Questions, questions. Answers will be provided next May (just kidding).
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the stellar Stieg Larsson novel I also mentioned last week, has a “twofer” in this area: 42-year-old Mikael Blomkvist sleeps a number of times with a woman who’s 56 before doing the same with one who’s 24. The women — I’m omitting their names to avoid spoilers — initiate the “affairs” in each case. (Does the dragon on that tattoo also have a May-December relationship? I’ll check The New York Times‘ “Vows” column and get back to you.)
But as I mentioned earlier, men are older in the majority of age-mismatched couples. For instance, Jane Eyre is 18 and Edward Rochester in his latter 30s when the two meet. But Jane’s hard-won, exceptional maturity makes that gap seem significantly less in Charlotte Bronte’s novel.
Another Edward, the Rev. Casaubon, is also much older than his wife in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Dorothea Brooke is a smart woman who eventually becomes as clear-eyed about life as Jane Eyre is, but her combination of idealism and youthful naivete when meeting Edward cause her to misread what Casaubon is really like (awful).
Also negatively matched are Isabel Archer and her two-decades-older husband in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. There are other reasons besides age for why that marriage doesn’t work, but it’s germane that the husband has lived long enough to have a secret history plus lots of “practice” being controlling and manipulative.
Another reverend wed to a much younger woman is John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, but the match is a fairly positive one despite his ill health. The marriage gave John (whose first wife died giving birth to a daughter who also died) two second chances because he also has a young son with Lila.
Then there are very queasy age gaps, such as the one in Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial Lolita between the 12-year-old title character and Humbert Humbert — who’s in his late 30s when the pair’s sexual involvement happens.
There are also unreal gaps, as with Cormac O’Connor being roughly 275 years old when in a serious relationship with a normal-aged women near the end of Pete Hamill’s Forever. Cormac can live indefinitely (and still look young) as long as he doesn’t leave Manhattan — meaning gentrification is an obvious threat. 🙂
As I said earlier, older woman-younger man couples are not seen as frequently, but they do exist in literature as well as real life.
Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back tells the story of a forty-something stockbroker and single mother who, while on an island vacation, falls for a man half her age.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s semi-autobiographical Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter features an 18-year-old named Mario falling in love with 32-year-old divorcee Julia. She is indeed his aunt, but they’re not related by blood.
Colette’s Cheri focuses on the affair between the novel’s title character and Lea, who’s 24 years older than him. The author herself had a (bad) first marriage to a man 14 years her senior and a (good) third marriage to a man 16 years her junior.
Harold and Maude, featuring a relationship between a young man and 79-year-old woman, is best known as a cult-favorite movie but was also turned into a novel by Colin Higgins.
And there’s a sweet section of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine novel in which a young man and a woman over 90 have a series of deep conversations that are essentially a verbal love affair.
Who are some of the most memorable fictional couples (married or not) with wide age gaps? (Straight or gay relationships welcome!)
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