Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Henry James wrote “The Middle Years” at a crucial period in his own life, when he had failed as a dramatist on the London stage but had already produced a considerable body of distinguished fiction. He was already being surrounded by a group of gifted young men who wanted to be acolytes and hail him as a master. This relationship between an older author and young persons whose spirits are strongly touched by his art is reflected in such tales, composed in the 1890’s, as “The Death of the Lion,” “The Figure in the Carpet,” and, as shown, “The Middle Years.”

In this tale, James, as always, sees art and life as unalterably opposed, and creates a fable of the artist. Dencombe, as James’s artist-hero, asks himself two important questions: How well has he done his work, and how valuable is it? The crucial question behind these meditations is whether his life has been well spent, or whether his apprenticeship has been too long, his mature achievement too brief.

Through his friendship with Dr. Hugh, Dencombe has the opportunity to get answers to his anxious questions. He discovers the hard truth that he is to be given only one chance in life—the one he has already had; that whatever the pearl of artistic perfection he could have created, were he granted longer years, it will never be realized. He also discovers his ability to embrace this truth, however ruefully, because his work has persuaded Dr. Hugh to choose between two ways of living and valuing, and to prefer the density and depth of experience manifest in art to the surface glitter represented by the countess’s riches. In Dr. Hugh’s sharing of what Dencombe has cared for, he has received a reassuring demonstration of his own life’s meaning.

“The Middle Years” also dramatizes a concern that James treated in a number of other stories: the life unlived. Dencombe has lost his wife and only son to illness. He has outlived his older friends. He joins the group of estranged and solitary men, forlorn and anxious, in such tales as “The Pupil,” “The Altar of the Dead,” “The Birthplace,” and what may be James’s greatest artist fable, “The Beast in the Jungle.” “The Middle Years,” haunted by Dencombe’s sense of the failed life, anticipates ironic fables of the artist by Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann.