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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656

A middle-aged writer, Dencombe, is ill and feels his strength ebbing irrevocably. He has just had a novel published, The Middle Years , and is reading it on a cliffside bench in the sea resort of Bournemouth, on the English Channel coast. As he meditates on his waning energy, he...

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A middle-aged writer, Dencombe, is ill and feels his strength ebbing irrevocably. He has just had a novel published, The Middle Years, and is reading it on a cliffside bench in the sea resort of Bournemouth, on the English Channel coast. As he meditates on his waning energy, he is distracted by three people who are walking slowly along the beach. He imagines that the young man is the son of the large, opulent matron, and that the humble young woman, possibly a clergyman’s or officer’s daughter, is secretly in love with the man. The object of her affection seems, however, more absorbed in a book he is carrying than in her.

Dencombe’s surmise, although wrong in detail, turns out to be essentially right regarding the trio’s relations. He learns that the older woman, wealthy and childless, has taken a strong liking to the young man, a recently graduated physiologist called only “Dr. Hugh.” Although she will probably leave him a considerable inheritance, she exacts from him absolute devotion and attention. The young woman is her paid companion, whose only prospect is to promote Dr. Hugh’s cause with his employer, so as either to marry him after the countess’s death or else pressure him into buying her off.

The main concern of the story is introduced as the young doctor separates himself from the ladies, sits on Dencombe’s bench, and each man discovers that the other is holding a copy of The Middle Years. Dencombe decides not to reveal his identity immediately: He wants an uninhibited evaluation of his novel by the young man. He quickly gets it: Dr. Hugh is wildly enthusiastic, convinced that it is the best thing the author has done yet.

Dencombe is equally enthusiastic. He believes that he has finally achieved the maturity of style and craft toward which he has labored all of his life. He is painfully conscious of the deadly irony that his struggles and sufferings have finally resulted in mastery at the point when his life is slipping away. Dencombe asks himself why his growth as a writer has been so arduously slow, why he has groped his way for too many years. He believes it has taken too long to produce too little art.

Dr. Hugh is the greatest admirer Dencombe can possibly wish for among the younger generation. When the doctor notices that Dencombe has corrected at least a dozen sentences in his copy of the novel, he is shocked at such desecration of his idol’s text. When the doctor discovers Dencombe’s identity, he offers not only his admiration but also his friendship and his medical services. Dencombe is flattered and seizes the opportunity. He would love to live longer, to have a masterful late phase to follow his middle years.

Dr. Hugh assures Dencombe that he will live, but then Dencombe hears that the countess has fallen ill, out of jealousy that the young man has neglected her for the writer. An agitated Miss Vernham visits Dencombe to charge that he was injuring the doctor’s prospects of inheritance, so Dencombe should leave Bournemouth. Dencombe, although willing, is too ill to get away. He then learns from Dr. Hugh that the countess has died, after having cursed and disinherited him. The doctor assures Dencombe that he has made a good choice, preferring literature to wealth.

The effect on Dencombe is profound. The free and sensitive choice that Dr. Hugh has made shows that his writing has made someone care deeply. His life has been successful, after all. The dying author then gathers his strength to speak his testament:A second chance—that’s the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

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