Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Middle Years” is a title James chose for not only this tale but for an autobiographical reminiscence that he began in 1914 but left unfinished, intending it as a companion work to his Notes of a Son and Brother (1914). The phrase is richly as well as ambiguously connotative, spanning an unspecified center of an individual’s life. James may well have had in mind the famous opening words of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), “Midway in our life’s journey . . . ,” where the protagonist has lost his way and finds himself in a dark wood. The resonance of the title spans both Dencombe’s life and last work.

The story’s imagery serves to illustrate Dencombe’s—and James’s—sense of the artist and the proper concerns and value of art. When he creeps to his favorite bench at Bournemouth, it becomes his bench of desolation as well as reflection. His lack of interest in using external nature in his work is illustrated by his response to the sea, which strikes him as “far shallower than the spirit of man.” In contrast, it is the “abyss of human illusion that was the real, the tideless deep.” A little later, James pursues a water image by referring to Dencombe’s awareness of his ebbing time. Later still, Dencombe has dived into his novel, drawn down to the dim underworld of fiction, to its tank of art. When he hears Dr. Hugh express his unreserved devotion to his writing, “The sense of cold submersion left him—he seemed to float without an effort.”

The text’s style and concentrated imagery are integrated meticulously with its theme in this haunting tale of art’s rigors and trials.