Literature may extend our knowledge about older men with alcohol problems


The article is written by researchers , on request of popNAD
Published 4 April, 2018

The present study presents an approach to combining literary readings and qualitative data. We find that the literary reading usefully reframes the qualitative data.

This article looks at the relationship between literary portrayals of alcohol use and the self-recounted experiences of older men with alcohol problems. We argue that, by reading literature which is connected to these men in terms of social group and generation, we can increase our understanding of the symbolic associations alcohol has for them, in a way that can inform treatment.

This effort represents a new kind of collaboration between the humanities and the health sciences. Humanities materials are often used to educate health professionals, and to improve the wellbeing of patients. We suggest that the humanities is also relevant to healthcare as a research mode, a way of accessing information about the cultural factors in patients’ feelings and behaviours.

We engage in phenomenological analysis of interview responses from The Elderly Study, focusing on the testimony of three men, identified as Alfred, Oluf, and Ditlev. Each of these men report the onset of alcohol problems after retirement, in connection with a sense of uselessness and isolation.

Methodological synthesis

Drawing on established work on how gender relates to illness and substance abuse, we are able to conject that overuse of alcohol may have been a way of helping these men feel masculine at a time when their self-perceived masculinity was under threat. This need may also explain their response to treatment; all three expressed the desire to cope alone, perhaps in a further desire to preserve a self-perception of masculine autonomy.

But we find that this explanation can be deepened by considering relevant cultural material. Published in 1957 and widely read in the 1960s, the English novel Lucky Jim contains many symbolically loaded scenes of alcohol use. Set in a British university, the novel is highly critical of traditional institutions and morals, in keeping with the libidinal and anarchic tendencies of postwar capitalism and youth culture.


We argue that, in the figure of its protagonist, Jim Dixon, the novel models a historically new form of desirable masculinity, one defined by the pursuit of appetite and the defiance of any outside attempt to regulate it. Dixon overcomes regulation in a variety of areas, from sexual to professional life, but alcohol serves as a consistent metaphor as well as a major example within the plot: masculinity is the right to drink what one pleases.

We see no need to claim that Lucky Jim caused some attitude in Alfred, Oluf, and Ditlev, or even that they have read it at all. Rather, it is an example of the larger cultural patterns they lived through, and some of its content resonates with and develops aspects of their testimony which otherwise might have received little attention, especially relating to their reluctance to undergo institutional treatment.

Without the literary reading, we could have seen how relying on others might be felt to diminish a masculine independence these men find valuable. But when we consider the new, historically specific form of masculine values of which Lucky Jim is an example, we can see that it is not only a question of accepting help, but of accepting discipline and rules for consumption – things one is supposed to fight against.

This recognition suggests that this population has special needs, which programs of alcohol treatment would do well to accommodate, perhaps by making it clear that cessation is one’s own decision, or avoiding moralization and surveillance.


Jakob Emiliussen, MSc Psychology, Phd.
University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark

Alastair Morrison, M.Phil, English and Comparative Literature, Phd.
University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark