Picturing Midlife: Aging and the Limits of Narrative in Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party


  • Sara Jamieson Carleton University






This paper approaches Larry’s Party (1997) by Carol Shields as a detailed investigation into the political and representational issues at stake in writing about midlife by focusing on moments when the middle-aged Larry is describedas attempting to “visualize” his life (169). Highlighting Larry’s conviction that “his life is not ... a story” (267), his engagement with visual images raises questions about the centrality of narrative to how midlife is explained and imagined in contemporary literature and culture. Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s influential theorization of midlife and midlife fiction celebrates the sequential and teleological aspects of narrative as enabling a kind of life storytelling that characterizes the entry into middle age as progress toward an improved self. Questioning this conceptualization of a life as a linear, upward trajectory, Shields’s text foregrounds the assumptions about class implicit in the “progress novel” as Larry resists the devaluation of his working-class origins that would seem to accompany the imperative that he esteem his midlife self as better than his previous selves. Associating the fixity of the visual image with other non- narrative qualities such as touch, taste, and affective states characterized by stasis rather than momentum, Larry’s Party invites readers to question the cultural valorization of progress that continues to shape our assumptions about what it means to grow older.

Author Biography

Sara Jamieson , Carleton University

is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Carleton University. Her research and teaching interests are broadly concerned with contemporary Canadian literatures, with a particular focus on age studies, including fictional representations of long-term residential care and fictional engagements with conceptions of midlife in contemporary culture. Her published and forthcoming work in these areas includes articles on the writing of Alice Munro, Joan Barfoot, Paul Quarrington, Margaret Atwood, and Joe Ollmann. She is currently at work on a project examining representations of midlife in Canadian literature and culture. She can be reached at sara_jamieson@carleton.ca.


Barry, Elizabeth. “Putting It Down to Experience: Ageing and the Subject in Sartre, Munro, and Coetzee.” European Journal of English Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, 2018, pp. 13-27.

Charise, Andrea. “Spots of Future Time: Tableaux, Masculinity, and the Enactment of Aging.” Modern Drama, vol. 59, no. 2, 2016, pp. 155-76.

Chudacoff, Howard. How Old Are You?: Age Consciousness in American Culture. Princeton UP, 1989.

Cole, Thomas. The Journey ofLife: A Cultural History ofAging in America. Cambridge UP, 1992.

Colville, Georgiana. “Carol’s Party and Larry’s Shields: On Carol Shields’ Novel Larry’s Party.” Études Canadiennes/Canadian Studies, no. 49, 2000, pp. 85-96.

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke UP, 2012.

DeFalco, Amelia. Uncanny Subjects: Aging in Contemporary Narrative. Ohio State UP, 2010.

Dvorak, Marta. “Carol Shields and the Poetics of the Quotidian.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 38, 2002, pp. 1-12.

Eakin, Paul John. How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Cornell UP, 1999.

—. “Narrative Identity and Narrative Imperialism: A Response to Galen Strawson and

James Phelan.” Narrative, vol. 14, no. 2, 2006, pp. 180-87.

Ellis, S.R., and T.G. Morrison. “Stereotypes of Ageing: Messages Promoted by Age- Specific Paper Birthday Cards Available in Canada.” International Journal of Aging and Human Development, vol. 61, no. 1, 2005, pp. 57-73.

Ephron, Nora. I Feel Bad About My Neck. Knopf, 2006.

Erikson, Erik. Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. Norton, 1958.

Favret, Mary. “Jane Austen at 25: A Life in Numbers.” English Language Notes, vol. 46, no. 1, 2008, pp. 9-19.

Goertz, Dee. “Treading the Maze of Larry’s Party.” Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger, and the Possibilities of Fiction, edited by Edward Eden and Dee Goertz, U of Toronto P, 2003, pp. 230-54.

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America. U of Chicago P, 2011.

—. Safe at Last in the Middle Years: The Invention of the Midlife Progress Novel. U of California P, 1988.

Heath, Kay. Aging by the Book: The Emergence of Midlife in Victorian Britain. SUNY P, 2009. Howells, Coral Ann. Contemporary Canadian Women’s Fiction: Refiguring Identities. Palgrave,

Jaffe, Alexandra. “Packaged Sentiments: The Social Meanings of Greeting Cards.” Journal of

Material Culture, vol. 4, no. 2, 1999, pp. 115-41.

Joerissen, Peter, and Cornelia Will. Die Lebenstreppe: Bilder der Menschlichen Lebensalter.

Rheinland-Verlag, 1983.

Johnson, Lisa. “‘She Enlarges on the Available Materials’: A Postmodernism of Resistance in The Stone Diaries.” Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger, and the Possibilities of Fiction, edited by Edward Eden and Dee Goertz, U of Toronto P, 2003, 201-29.

Life, Patricia. “Assembling Identity: Late-Life Agency in The Stone Angel and The Stone Diaries.” The Worlds of Carol Shields, edited by David Staines, U of Ottawa P, 2014, pp. 93-111.

Ljungberg, Christina. “The Bell Jar, the Maze, and the Mural: Diagrammatic Figurations as Textual Performance.” Signergy: Iconicity in Language and Literature, edited by Jac Conradie et al., Benjamins, 2010, pp. 47-72.

McAdams, Dan P. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. Morrow, 1993.

Meagher, Michelle. “Art, Ageing, and the Body.” Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology, edited by Julia Twigg and Wendy Martin, Routledge, 2015, pp. 85-92.

Pitkin, Walter. Life Begins at Forty. McGraw-Hill, 1932.

Rosenberg, Stanley D., et al. “The Midlife Crisis Revisited.” Life in the Middle: Psychological and Social Development in Middle Age, edited by Sherry L. Willis and James D. Reid, Academic Press, 1999, pp. 47-73.

Shields, Carol. Larry’s Party. Vintage, 1997.

—. “The Arc of a Life.” Random Illuminations: Conversations with Carol Shields, by Eleanor

Wachtel, Goose Lane, 2007, pp. 69-89.

—. The Stone Diaries. 1993. Vintage, 2008.

van Gessel, Nina. “‘A Man’s Journey’: Masculinity, Maze, and Biography in Carol Shields’ Larry’s Party.” Studies in Canadian Literature, vol. 32, no. 1, 2007, pp.154-72.

Waxman, Barbara Frey. “A New Language of Aging: ‘Deep Play’ in Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries and Alison Lurie’s The Last Resort.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 67, no. 2, 2002, pp. 25-51.

Woodward, Kathleen. “Against Wisdom: The Social Politics of Anger and Aging.” Cultural Critique, no. 51, 2002, pp. 186-218.




How to Cite

Jamieson , S. . “Picturing Midlife: Aging and the Limits of Narrative in Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party”. Age, Culture, Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 4, Jan. 2020, pp. 1-24, doi:10.7146/ageculturehumanities.v4i.130594.



Research Article