“Foreigners in their own country”: The Struldbruggs and the changing language of aging in Swift's world
This study uses the Struldbrugg episode in Swift's Gulliver's Travels as a focal point in an investigation of important shifts in perceptions of aging in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. While modernity brought many benefits for the elderly, it also delivered more equivocal changes: the loss of a narrative of comfort and meaning for aging in a society increasingly telling itself a story of progress, perfectibility, and novelty; the slide from an ontological to a pathological view of the manifestations of aging; a mounting belief in self-efficacy that extended to economic and medical issues related to age; the growth of "political arithmetick" and the consequent categorization and enumeration of the human population which often both defined and marginalized the elderly; the growing conviction that the life span could be extended indefinitely; the related increase in economic gerontophobia (the fear of the old depleting the resources of the young); and the shift in both the very language of aging and the locus of control of that language. Finally, while memory became more important in theories of personal identity, the memories of the long-lived lost value in an increasingly documentary society. I contend neither that these phenomena were entirely new in the early eighteenth century nor that losses outweighed the benefits of the new age; however, in the early modern era these attitudes became incrementally more institutionalized and collective, while the rhetoric of progress—then and now—has consistently privileged positive changes and minimized losses.
Reading back and forth between historical documents and the Travels and between the words Swift puts in the mouth of the aging Gulliver and the words of the aging Dean himself (both are fifty-nine when Gulliver concludes his adventures), this work traces developments in such issues as economic gerontophobia and ageism. The Struldbruggs' linguistic isolation makes them "Foreigners in their Own Country"; Swift—through the Struldbruggs and documentation of his own old age—gives us the foreign world of senescence in his time and offers us a chance to juxtapose the place of aging as modernity begins with the situation of senescence as, perhaps, modernity ends.