Henry James’ “The Middle Years” falls under the genre of realism. Realism became a distinct type of fiction during the Victorian Era.
The realist author focuses primarily on character, creating characters that have motivations, interests, desires, and fears. How these characters develop is realism at its highest level. Much of the reader’s understanding of the realistic character is through internal monologues which include changes in moods, opinions, motivations… this creates the conflict in realism.
The protagonist Dencombe exemplifies this type of character. The author acknowledges that this story was autobiographical.
Dencombe, a writer in his fifties, vacations in a seaside hotel. Mysteriously ill, he is tired from his brief walk. He observes three people down on the beach. As he sits on a bench resting, he opens a package and finds a copy of his latest book, The Middle Years.
The young man of the group is called Doctor Hugh…ironically, he is reading Dencombe’s latest book.
“Chance had brought the weary man of letters face to face with the greatest admirer in the new generation of whom it was supposable he might boast. The admirer in truth was mystifying, so rare a case was it to find a bristling young doctor…enamored of literary form…Dencombe was exhilarated as well as confounded.”
Excited by the discovery that his novel is so much finer than he'd expected, Dencombe wonders if he might have a second life, after all. "Ah for another go, ah for a better chance!"
Another aspect of James’ realism was to portray life as it existed for the upper class. He portrayed life as it actually was, and not a romanticized version of what society thought it ought to be. James knew these “society” people, and he stayed faithful to his experiences.
The character of Doctor Hugh epitomizes this element of realism. The doctor was working with an older wealthy countess who has promised to give him an inheritance. When Dencombe passes out and becomes more ill, Doctor Hugh spends time with Dencombe despite him having his own doctor.
The younger of the two ladies comes to Dencombe and insists that the sick man tell the doctor to leave. Dencombe listens but is really too ill to care. The countess threatens to abandon her intentions with the doctor if he does not return to her side and treat only her. Doctor Hugh refuses to be ordered around by two silly ladies; the ladies leave for the capital. Later, the doctor tells Dencombe that the countess died.
Right or wrong, Doctor Hugh abandons the countess to stay with Dencombe. At one point, Dencombe believes that he will die. The doctor stays with him, and slowly, the writer improves. Dencombe realizes that he may have been given a second chance at life and his work!