“Surprising Developments”: Midlife in Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are?


This essay reads Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) as a sustained critique of the theory of the “midlife crisis,” a dominant narrative of middle age circulating in popular culture during the 1960s and 70s. Defined in numerous psychological and self-help texts as a traumatic period of rupture from a more desirable youthful identity, the midlife crisis narrative works to generate anxiety around the attainment of particular ages in the middle years. In contrast to how this therapeutic literature prioritizes chronological age as a universal measure of human development and the defining aspect of identity, Munro’s text draws attention to age consciousness as a recent phenomenon, produced and sustained in particular social and institutional contexts, and insists on how awareness of age is mediated by other factors, especially class difference. Working to demystify the concept of middle age as a timeless essence, Munro’s text exposes the midlife crisis as but one among many possible narratives of midlife, not all of which are characterized by a debilitating sense of disjunction from a younger self. In its representation of midlife, Who Do You Think You Are? stresses the continuity of identity that is as much a part of aging as is physical change, emphasizing the possibility of happiness for individuals in middle age, and facilitating the recognition of connections between different age groups, at a time when divisions between the young and the middle-aged were often figured as profound and unbridgeable.

This article ““Surprising Developments”: Midlife in Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are?” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 54-69.

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