Life Stage Studies and the Eighteenth Century: Reading Age in Literature



This essay traces the field of life stage studies, surveying its general trends and its particular impact on our understanding of eighteenth-century culture. Also known as “life cycle studies,” “life span studies,” or “age studies,” this field has been largely overlooked until recently, but has yielded new insights into identity and literary formations. When aggregated, recent studies show a profound change in how aging was perceived and treated in the eighteenth century as more fluid ideas about three stages of the life cycle – childhood, adolescence, and senescence – gradually became identified not simply by social rituals or external appearance but also by numerical age. Because of its multidisciplinary approach, life stage studies allows us both to recognize this transformation and to connect it to developments in the eighteenth century in the fields of philosophy, law, education, social policy, and literature.