Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1660
Even though this book is only about Green’s first twenty-two years, it gives the impression of being exceedingly pessimistic about the success of humans of all ages in managing their words, finding happiness in any activities, and, in fact, even surviving the approaching war that Green feared would take his own life and perhaps even mark the end of the world as he knew it. Green (probably by nature a pessimist) knows that he conveys an impression of almost overwhelming pessimism. So he stops his narrative from time to time to advise his reader that he does not really mean to sound as hopeless as he naturally is. Green almost seems to tell the reader not to take the pessimism as seriously as Green himself must take it. For example, coming to the end of his account of life at the boarding school, Green urges the reader not to think “that there was persecution or even prolonged unhappiness at our school,” even though the author has provided several accounts of both. Green’s questionable explanation for the dominance of unhappy events in his book is that humans generally remember happiness only when it is attached to some particular action or person. Because the lives of the boys in the school were so busy, so communal, so totally arranged by the headmaster, Green could not actually experience individualistic events that, alone, might have brought sufficient happiness to be remembered.
Later in the book, now writing about his period at Eton, Green stops himself again to write, “But I should give an altogether false idea of my time at school by describing it as one long moaning and groaning.” He continues, observing that there were “things anyone could do,” and he recounts a few. Still, the more consistent impression is of the unhappy times.
At another point, writing about his own compositional method of bringing events back from the past, Green writes that it is an error “to try to recreate days that are done.” What he does rather than to re-create the past is to search out a time and to write it down as nearly as possible to capture what it seems to him to be like at the time of writing, not at the time of occurrence. Here is a primary clue both to Green’s impressionistic style and to his pessimistic outlook. He has a present impression of the way things once were, and it is that current impression that he wants to convey, rather than to try to discover through memory what his impression might have been earlier. Even if Green was not inherently pessimistic, the reader can certainly see that in the 1938-1939 period just prior to World War II, he was filled with despair. Surely that hopelessness colored, as Green almost admits, not only the actual nature of his past but also the feelings that he may or may not have had during the occurrences in the past.
Like almost everyone who writes about British social and educational life, Green must deal with the class system. Particularly interesting is his reaction to the officers who were convalescing in his family home during World War I. Writing of the differences in expectations and manners between his family and the wounded officers, Green remarks that the effect “on a child of my class” was to expose him to social gulfs that were both narrow and deep. They were narrow because these men were, after all, officers, but the chasms were simultaneously deep because the men had “to come over that rope bridge over that gorge across which intercourse is had on the one side by saying ‘sir’ and on the other ‘my good man.’” Of the effect on him of his exposure to these men, Green maintains that he probably did not immediately learn about the fine distinctions in class, because he was too young to absorb such a lesson, but that he saw enough to recognize the echoes when he heard them in later situations. According to Green, manners were what he and his family had and these wounded men did not have; he contends that the differences between the classes are accidental, primarily the result of money. The presence of money means that leisure time is available for the learning of manners, so anyone can have manners who has the time to learn them. Green does not even seem convinced of the advantages of being in the privileged class, saying that many of the privileges are illusory. Writing of the laborers in the family’s manufacturing plant, with whom he worked, Green observes that “theirs is one of the best ways to live provided that one has never been spoiled by moneyed leisure.” Green’s quiet acceptance of both the existence of the class system and the role he had to play in it is well demonstrated in the opening sentence, where he says he was born “with a silver spoon.” Although Green’s phrasing and the preceding discussion may imply that British society is divided simply into those who have money and manners and those who do not, the truth for Green is much more complex, as he states that there are hundreds of well-defined social classes throughout the country.
Regarding his own personality and character, Green is equally accepting, matter-of-fact, rational, and impressionistic. Considerably overweight and possessed of few athletic talents, Green was not very good at the sports and games that were such a large part of the boarding school system. A chapter begins “Gym was harrowing,” but Green hardly tells a harrowing tale. Rather, he says that the boys did not really have to take gym class seriously because the instructor was of no importance in the scheme of things; only the headmaster really counted. About leaping onto a leather horse, Green says it was the pointless torture that boys had to go through in Fascist states and in an England preparing to fight such states. As he writes, the impending war was never far from Green’s thoughts. He admits to developing a short-lived appetite for games when he first arrived at Eton, but in retrospect he is not at all certain why he temporarily found enjoyment in playing. At Oxford, Green became part of a group of young men more interested in aesthetics than in athletics, and they were looked upon as lepers by the majority of game-playing students. Green asserts that he and the others did not disdain athletics then only because of their own physical clumsiness. They saw positive damage to education being done by the emphasis upon athletics. Green writes that many of the school’s masters were terrible teachers who held their positions only because they had been famous athletes.
If young Green was ineffective in athletics, he was not much better at first in that other primary game of the young: romance. The picture he draws of young Henry at Eton is of a boy holding girls in total awe. They were such beautifully superior beings that Green could not imagine doing anything with them but holding conversation, and even that was nearly impossible because of “the animal mystery they held of bearing life within them.” In love with love and unable to bring his exalted emotions down to the level of individual girls, Green says that he could not possibly believe that poets such as Robert Herrick were correct in saying that women “enjoyed making love.” He concludes that he and his friends were lucky in being protected from “a glut of girls,” which would have served only to remove the wonderful mystery of sex.
Important things began happening to Green just at the end of his penultimate year at Eton and the summer holiday that followed. He began writing his first novel, and he began to “meet girls.” Well, perhaps they were not really girls. They were two beautiful sisters in their thirties, one widowed and one married. They began to take interest in the sixteen-year-old Green. Although Green characterizes his view of them as being “in a light altogether remote from any that shines on this world,” he recalls that he was simultaneously “entirely uncertain of my position” with them. Writing about the experience, he supposes that they never thought of him except when they were planning another party.
The instructive climax in the relationship came at a party at Green’s family’s home, at which Green went to bed because he disdained dancing. The “girls” came up to his room to tease him and try to taunt him down to the party. Green writes that he had thought in vain “over and over again” why they left the dance to come to him with their “bare shoulders,” but as a result of their visit he felt grown-up and “did not presume on the incident because I had the sense to realize they were not for me.” Green apparently muddled through all of his romantic explorations well enough, since he closes this book with the information that as of 1939 he had been happily married for ten years.
This portrait of Green as a young man is rarely that of an incipient artist in any Joycean sense, but rather of an intelligent youth who would one day write novels. Rarely discussing art and aesthetics, Green does twice quote from and discuss early efforts at writing. He cites three expressions of moods not so much for what they describe as for “how they are written.” He refers to two as “yells about self” and expresses the hope that in this book the raw wounds have been scabbed over with an objective attitude. He remains afraid, however, that his death in World War II will “come too soon, before this attitude is established” for use in novels. Green need not have harbored such fears. This book has the attitude he seemed to desire. He survived the war. Seven more novels were written.