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The Regret of Aging in Birches by Robert Frost and Old School by Tobias Wolff

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“Youth is a blunder; Manhood a struggle, Old Age a regret”. Throughout history, age has followed men and women to the ends of the earth, always bringing regret along with it. The relationship between age and regret is heavily used in literary works to convey the regret that characters feel for both their mistakes and experiences in times of youth. In “Birches,” by Robert Frost, the narrator regrets that he cannot experience his past once more, and shows he would give anything to be a kid again. In Old School, by Tobias Wolff, Dean Makepeace regrets letting a lie embody him and guide his life down an untruthful path which leads to dark places. In both Old School and “Birches,” central characters regret the fact that they cannot return to a passed time, leading to depression and solitude.

First, in Old School, Dean Makepeace regrets allowing the assumption that he knew Ernest Hemingway, as the lie has caused him so much suffering over the course of his life. In the resolution of the novel, Dean Makepeace’s background is revealed to readers and shows why he could not stand being the subject of a lie for any longer. Dean Makepeace thinks, “This boy had laid false claim to a story, whereas he himself had laid false claim to much more – to a kind of importance, to a life not his own”. The dean is forced to lay false claim to a life that is not his own in light of the rumors started up by the students who asked him of his relationship with Hemingway once at lunch. Everything readers understand about Makepeace has been twisted throughout the years, with him letting a rumor take hold and not stopping it while he could. He obviously regrets this mistake and while explaining his story to the headmaster, shows that he would give anything to go back to his younger years and change the error. However, he knows he cannot do that, and has to live with the consequence of being known as someone he could never be. Even after the headmaster tries to convince Makepeace that the lie was not of his own doing and therefore not his fault, the dean replies, “Thank you, John”… …“Bless your heart. I really do have to go”. This attitude of submission can largely be attributed to the fact that Makepeace knows he has committed a wrongdoing and can do nothing to take it back. This life changing mistake that the dean commits brings with it a burden which weighs Makepeace down for years.

Next, the narrator of “Birches,” a man appearing to be in the later years of his life, thinks to himself about how he would give anything to be a child once more, as he regrets the loss of his previous life. Frost depicts the narrator with a kind of longing to be immature and ignorant to anything but what is given to him again showing that the promises of adulthood have not lived up to the narrator’s expectations. The narrator talks about how he, “was”… …“once himself a swinger of birches/And so he dreams of going back to be”. Using the language “he dreams,” Frost conveys to readers that the narrator understands he cannot return to his past, but dreams he can. The narrator wishes to once again be able to swing the birches like he did in his youth because of the joy that he experienced in an earlier time. However, in the present, he is in a crisis where he has no idea what to do with his life, forcing him to look back on his simplistic youth. The narrator’s unhappiness with his condition of life is especially exemplified by his dialogue as, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches”. The fact that he knows this, shows that the narrator is in a dreary period of his life being depressed and alone. However, it is interesting that he talks of doing worse than being a swinger of birches, as if the youth aspect of one’s life is the best part of their existence whereas the elderly time accounts to the worst. The narrator is overcome with a feeling of regret, and becomes depressed as he ponders his past and wishes for it to return.

Both “Birches” and Old School are prime examples of how a growing age leads to regret and depression which brings important characters down. In “Birches” the narrator’s regret leads him to wanting to “begin over” and start anew, causing his state of depression. Then, in Old School, Dean Makepeace regrets making a past mistake and, “kicks himself out” to create temporary solitude where he can look back on his greatest mistake, as he can no longer bear the weight of his guilt. Although different types of regret are exhibited by the two characters, they both have the common connection of being the aftermath of old age. All throughout the world today, people experience similar regrets to the characters as they grow old. These regrets lead to isolation from society and self-imposed depression, causing people to create low points in their lives.

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The Regret of Aging in Birches by Robert Frost and Old School by Tobias Wolff. (2020, September 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from
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