Ebbing Time

“The tears filled his mild eyes; something precious had passed away. This was the pang that had been sharpest during the last few years- the sense of ebbing time, of shrinking opportunity; and now he felt not so much that his last chance was going as that it was gone indeed. He had done all that he should ever do, and yet he had not done what he wanted”

James, Henry. “The Middle Years” (337)

This passage shows how the main character, Decombe, is going through an end-of-life crisis. He is realizing that his time living is finite, and that time is running out for him, he’s approaching death.

the consequences of infatuation

“‘You chose to let a fortune go?’ ‘I chose to accept, whatever they might be, the consequences of my infatuation,’ smiled Doctor Hugh.” 

James, Henry. “The Middle Years,” (354).

It is interesting how the “good or bad” of a consequence is only measured in how much value you place on what you become enthralled with. Doctor Hugh does not describe the consequences of his infatuation as bad, more matter of fact that he had such adoration and love for Dencombe’s writing, that choosing the literature, over the fortune, was well worth any perceived negative outcome. To him the choice was easy. It is interesting to consider how, although in reality the Countess’s fortune may have more societal value, Doctor Hugh’s personal value shifted with his infatuation. And in the end he smiles when he tells Dencombe he chose him over the fortune.

strange abyss

It was the abyss of human illusion that was the real, the tideless deep.

James, “The Middle Years” 355

Human illusion can allude to many things. Is it rooted in deceit and consciousness or is it a more natural state of being? And is the relation this refers to between people or unto them as a whole?

The World Is NOT His Oyster

“Oh, the pearl!” poor Decombe uneasily sighed. A smile as cold as a winter sunset flickered on his drawn lips as he added: “The pearl is the unwritten–the pearl is the unalloyed, the rest, the lost!”

James, “The Middle Years,” 353.

Decombe has a contentious relationship with his art; idea of missed opportunities, interpretations, last chances. Presence of art is less valuable than the absence? What value does art have on Decombe vs Doctor Hugh?

Reviving an Art

“He grew vivid, in the balmy air, to his companion, for whose deep refreshment he seemed to have been sent; and was particularly ingenuous in describing how recently he had become acquainted, and how instantly infatuated, with the only man who had put flesh between the ribs of an art that was starving on superstitions.”

James, The Middle Years, 342

Doctor Hugh, a young man, holds great admiration for Dencombe’s work as a revitalization of the art form.  Does this imply that the newer generation of readers were longing for a flight from tradition with new and exciting prose?

the art of observance

“This act, and something in the movement in either party, instantly characterized the performers…for Dencombe’s recreation…What, moreover, was the use of being an approved novelist if one couldn’t establish a relation between such figures”

– Henry James, “The Middle Years“, page 336

The character Dencombe observes the actions of three individuals, a young man, and 2 ladies, and their relations to each other. While his observations may be untrue, the imagination of the character fascinates me, as he could define a narrative in realtime.

A Life Without Extension

“No, no–I only should have had more time. I want another go.”
“Another go?”
“I want an extension.”
“An extension?” Again Doctor Hugh repeated Dencombe’s words, with which he seemed to have been struck. “Don’t you know? I want to what they call ‘live.’ ”
The young man, for good-bye, had taken his hand, which closed with a certain force. They looked at each other hard a
moment. “You will live,” said Doctor Hugh.

-James, “The Middle Years,” p. 348

I thought this was a very pivotal moment in the story, as Dencombe finally admits out loud that he is unsatisfied with his end (something he had been internally struggling with during the whole story), but yet this vulnerability allows for a beautiful friendship to grow.

Failed Recollection

“The cover of “The Middle Years” was duly meretricious, the smell of the fresh pages the very odour of sanctity; but for the moment he went no further- he had become conscious of a strange alienation. He had forgotten what his book was about.” (James 337)

Last sentence can allude to how we can forget pieces of our own life, especially if we are suffering in the present. First sentence relates to how we can look back on fond memories but forget the painful parts.


James, H. (1893). The Middle Years. 335-355.

Commonplacing 9/10/23

“He recognized his motive and surrendered to his talent. Never, probably, had that talent, such as it was, been so fine. His difficulties were still there, but what was also there, to his perception, though probably, alas! to nobody’s else, was the art that in most cases had surmounted them.”

– Henry James, The Middle Years

Terrible Views

“It was indeed general views that were terrible; short ones, contrary to an opinion sometimes expressed, were the refuge, were the remedy.”

James, “The Middle Years,” p.341

How are general and short views different? Is it expressing the idea that focusing on smaller, more fanciful ideas takes one’s mind off of troubling things, like watching the three people on the beach? This shows how observation can be used as a tool to help someone stay refreshed and not overwhelmed by the future of their life.

Dim Underworld of Fiction

“He lived once more into his story and was drawn down, as by a siren’s hand, to where, in the dim underworld of fiction, the great glazed tank of art, strange silent subjects float.”

James, “The Middle Years,” 337.

The murky diction (silent, float, dim) and fantastical imagery (siren, underworld) that James uses to describe Dencombe observing his literary work, implies a kind of transformation made possible through the consumption of art. The quote suggests that a work of art may transport the consumer to another world, another kind of thinking.

people watching

“What, moreover, was the use of being an approved novelist if one couldn’t establish a relation between such figures; the clever, theory, for instance, that the young man was the son of the opulent matron, and that the humble dependent, the daughter of a clergyman or an officer, nourished a secret passion for him? Was that not visible from the way she stole behind her protectress to look back at him?- back to where he had let himself come to a full stop when his mother sat down to rest. HIs book was a novel; it had the catchpenny cover, and while the romance of life stood neglected at his side he lost himself in that of the circulating library”

Henry James, The Middle Years, The Library of America, New York City 1996, pp.336

I really enjoy this passage due to both Dencombe’s motivation of his observations, and the relatability of the act. I often find myself letting my mind wander into creating narratives for those around me, and seeing a character do this really endears me to them.

Sample Commonplace-Book Entry

He should never again, as at one or two great moments of the past, be better than himself.

James, “The Middle Years,” 335.

Changing meanings of “better”: better health? better artistic success? better in some other sense. How can Dencombe be better than himself anyway? Is this D’s own belief or the narrator telling us the future?