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.

Fear of the Unfinished

“What he dreaded was the idea that his reputation should stand on the unfinished. It was not with his past but with his future that it should properly be concerned. Illness and age rose before him like spectres with pitiless eyes: how was he to bribe such fates to give him the second chance?”

– Henry James, “The Middle Years“, page 346

This passage personifies the future as a being that can be bribed, showing Decombe’s perception of himself and the world he is in. His fear of being unfinished seems to be rooted not only in whether or not his works will become great, but of being forgotten– and it’s to the point where he feels the need to rely on fate to make the change for him.

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.


“It had taken too much of his life to produce too little of his art”

Henry James, The Middle Years, The Library of America, New York City 1996, pp.338

Why does Dencombe believe there to be a limit on how much time one should spend on their art? His inability to take pride in his work seems to stem from these self-imposed expectations.

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.