The Middle Years

“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.” (James, 620).

I think this passage can speak to a lot of different elements of the piece. Dencombe’s final message seems to be that we only get one chance at living, and it’s messy and blind and passionate. But the same could be said about art. In the beginning, he seemed to struggle with the idea that his life was coming to an end, and he talked about wanting an ‘extension’ on life multiple times; but I think he died content with the time he had, and with the art he made.

The Middle Years

“This was the laceration – that practically his career was over: it was as violent as a rough hand at his throat.” (James, 610)

The passage itself describes itself; it is violent imagery. We see the tragedy of Dencombe’s life, the trail of regret that comes with not pursuing your dreams and what that lifestyle can do to a person. Dencombe’s dreams had been choked and smothered, killed with force; a horrible death for any person or idea.

The Middle Years

” It was an accident, but happier than most accidents, so that Dencombe, exhilarated as well as confounded, spent half an hour in making his visitor talk while he kept himself quiet” (James 613). 

Henry James, The Middle Years, page 613.

The fact that Dencombe wishes to hear Dr. Hugh’s opinion of his work so earnestly proves that he cares too much about what others think about his work and perhaps this is the reason Dencombe didn’t accomplish as much as he would have liked to as a writer. This quote lead me to believe that Dencombe is the type of person who spends too much time focusing on others thoughts and not enough time reflecting on his own which is something writers need to do.

A Contrast of Views

“It was not true, what he had tried for renunciation’s sake to believe, that all the combinations were exhausted.  They were not, they were not—they were infinite; the exhaustion was in the miserable artist.” (James, 613)

This moment is a poignant echo of James’ repeated contrast between the appeals of the world through young, passion-filled eyes and the tired, despairing perspective Dencombe holds in his dying days.

Henry James’ “The Middle Years”

“He had done all that he should ever do, and yet he had not done what he wanted” (James, 610).

This quote resonated very strongly with me; it feels like the accurate description of a lot of people’s lives at the moment. Especially in an era when students need n amount of experience by their first job, many follow what seems the “right thing to do” and not what’s right for ourselves.

What a Narcissist

“He had his plan, which was so fine that he rejoiced in it after getting back to bed. Doctor Hugh, suddenly finding himself snubbed without mercy, would, in natural disgust and to the joy of Miss Vernham, renew his allegiance to the Countess” (272).

Something about this passage seems off, for Dencombe doesn’t REALLY want to push the young doctor away. Dencombe is portrayed as a narcissist, in the sense that he needs constant support and praise to feel good about himself. I’m sure that if a close reading were to be done on his plan and its result, we might be able to find an alternative motive for which Dencombe “rejoices”.

The Middle Years

“His doctor came again, his servant was attentive, but it was to his confident young friend that he found himself mentally appealing. His collapse on the the cliff was plausibly explained, and his liberation, on a better basis, promised for the morrow; meanwhile, however, the intensity of his meditations kept him tranquil and made him indifferent.” (James, pg 616)

I really enjoyed this reading and what I found very appealing about this piece by Henry James was his descriptive writing style. This factor really helped me relate to the story with a clear picture of how the environment was which surrounded the characters. Considering this was an autobiography, his encounters with other authors were described in a very vivid way. In my opinion, the authors who incorporate actual real life situations into their plots are far more believable and interesting than pure fiction.



Henry James “The Middle Years”

“He was lost, he was lost – he was lost if he couldn’t be saved.”

Henry James, The Middle Years, page 615.

Repetition; the usage of “lost”; literal or metaphorical?; was the lost in connection with the sense of impending death?; could the lost be in connection with his mind and his illness?


“Altering the Text!”

“I see you’ve been altering the text!” Dencombe was a passionate corrector, a fingerer of style; the last thing he ever arrived at was a form final for himself. His ideal would have been to publish secretly, and then, on the published text, treat himself to the terrified revise, sacrificing always a first edition and beginning for the world with the second.


“The Middle Years” by Henry James, page 614.


There are plenty of great moments in this work (like the moment of the pearl), but as an aspiring writer this stuck out to me distinctly. With the end in mind, this moment is a sort of display as to how Dencombe is obsessed with having a second chance, something he keeps up (consciously or not) until the very end, at his death.

James “The Middle Years”

The young man, for good-by, had taken his hand, which closed with a certain force. They looked at each other hard a moment.    ” You will live,” said Doctor Hugh.

“Don’t be superficial. It’s too serious !”

“You shall live !” Dencombe’s visitor declared, turning pale.

“Ah, that’s better!” And as he retired the invalid, with a nervous laugh, sank gratefully back.

James’s “The Middle Years”: annotations

Bournemouth (609)
Beach town in Dorset (Southwest England).
diligence vincit omnia (611)
"Conquers all," but the Latin phrase (from Virgil) is usually omnia vincit amor (or amor vincit omnia), "love conquers all"
qui dort dine (612)
French cliché: literally, "who sleeps, dines," but meaning, "if you’re sleeping you don’t need to eat"
intrigante (615)
French: a (female) schemer

Sample commonplace

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. Jeri Johnson (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 5.

Tone change; strange details (“a glass”); grotesque (hairy face). Is this the same person who tells the story of the moocow and baby tuckoo?