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Bringing Nanda forward, or acting your age in The Awkward Age

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-08, 23:34 authored by Pam ThurschwellPam Thurschwell
Henry James’s 1899 novel, The Awkward Age posits the adolescent girl’s movement forward into the future as an acute problem for the fin-de-siècle. The novel’s titular pun equates the awkward, individual, in-between time of adolescence with the awkward, collective, in-between time of the fin-de-siècle, leading us both towards the turn-of-the-century ‘invention’ of the modern adolescent, and towards James’ exploration of the culturally constructed nature of age as an identity category. The conflation of individual ages with historical ones is significant; James’s novel appeared on the cusp of a new century, at a moment when adolescence was in the process of being consolidated as a modern identity category by medical authorities, educators, and psychologists. The novel’s deploying of technologies such as the telegraph and the photograph, that mediate presence, speed time up, slow it down, and freeze it, posits the adolescent girl as cognate with modernity; both of her time and ahead of it. In the novel, adolescence is an awkward, unnerving presence, and a significant absence: an identity in the process of being formulated, and an age category to come. In this article I explore the ways in which the rhetoric of modernity that resonates throughout the book relates to the awkward age of the adolescent. If we refocus our attention on age in The Awkward Age, we can begin to see the ways in which age itself becomes a creation of James’s, a staging of possible relations (sexual, conversational, economic, theatrical, performative, even utopian-collective) between older and younger interlocutors who swing between being ‘adults’ and ‘children,’ with the fin-de-siècle invention of the adolescent as a hinge for this process.


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