On Golden Pond
Theme of Facing Mortality
Early in the play, Norman starts making references to his own mortality in jokes and other comments. He talks about “living on borrowed time” and “preparing to celebrate his last birthday”. In his own way, he seems to have a healthy attitude about mortality; but, in another, his incessant joking makes one wonder whether he is trying too hard to maintain that façade. Cleaning the living room, Ethel finds that her old doll, Elmer, has fallen into the fireplace. Because it is a sentimental item for her, she is sad to find it in such a place. Norman speculates that “Elmer threw himself into the fireplace”. He then says that when it is time for him to die, Ethel should prop him up on the mantle so that he can do what Elmer did. Ethel tries to get Norman to stop, but he is having too much fun making jokes about his mortality. Making jokes not only enables him to make light of a serious subject, but also offers him the opportunity to push Ethel’s buttons.
Ethel endures Norman’s morbid comments, but she tries to get him to stop. If she were really upset by them, however, her reaction would be intense and emotional. Instead, her tone is more like a reprimand. When, in the second scene of Act I, he says “I’m on borrowed time as it is”, she replies, “Would you please take your cheery personality and get out of here.” At the end of his Elmer rant, she tells him “Your fascination with dying is beginning to frazzle my good humor.” She is reacting more to his flippant attitude than to the reality that she will have to go on without him. She knows that he is older than she is, and that his health is beginning to decline, so she is aware that she will be a widow at some point in the future. However, she will not indulge Norman’s self pity masked as humor. She also does not like him interrupting a nice moment with his suggestion that their time at Golden Pond may be drawing to a close. At the end of the first scene, she says “Our 48th season on Golden Pond,” to which he responds, “probably be our last.” She tells him “Oh, shut up.” This exchange has a slightly more serious tone because Norman is only half kidding. Given his declining health, he thinks it may be their last summer in the house. Her response is directed at the part of him that is kidding, as well as the part that is not.