The Middle Years by Henry James
In The Middle Years by Henry James we have the theme of desire, writing, admiration, loyalty, insecurity, confidence and fear. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story the James may be exploring the theme of desire. Despite the successes that Dencombe has had he longs for more success. It is as though he is unfinished with his writing which would naturally be the case for any writer. Always wanting their next publication to be better than their last. Dencombe is no exception. Unfortunately for Dencombe his body is letting him down and he may never get the chance to write another book even though he is driven by Hugh’s admiration of his latest book. This admiration may be important as it helps to play on Dencombe’s ego. He likes to know that he has entertained a reader even if he does make constant revisions to the book. Which may suggest an element of insecurity within Dencombe. That he himself despite what others might think about his writing. Is not necessarily happy with it. It is as though Dencombe may be afraid that he has not written to the best of his ability. That he has not sufficiently expressed a thought or feeling when writing.
It may also be a case that Hugh is somewhat infatuated by Dencombe considering the amount of time that he spends with him while at the same time ignoring his employer the Countess. It is possible that the written word is something that Hugh himself wishes to engage with not only as a reader but as a writer too. Dencombe also likes having Hugh around him as he in many ways helps to boost Dencombe’s confidence which is low throughout the story. It is as though Dencombe has two battles in front of him. One being physical and the other being mental with the reader suspecting that the mental battle that Dencombe feels with regards to his writing is harder on Dencombe. It is also possible that James is exploring the power and influence of words. Particularly when it comes to Hugh’s character. Whereas neither the Countess nor Miss Vernham allow themselves the pleasure of reading or at least they are not seen to be reading anything in the story and as such are not influenced by Dencombe in the way that Hugh is.
In many ways Hugh attaches a god-like persona to Dencombe such is the power of Dencombe’s writing. However as mentioned Dencombe himself would not be as confident about what he has written. Something that many writers have to deal with. The fear that what they have written is simply not good enough. It is also through Dencombe’s writing that Hugh displays a degree of loyalty to Dencombe and may not be necessarily differentiating between the writer and the man. Which is not to say that Dencombe is being deceitful when it comes to his writing. Far from it. Dencombe appears to wish to write as honestly as he can and that seems to be the stumbling block for him. That and his deteriorating health. It would also not be unreasonable to suggest that Dencombe may never write to the best of his ability even if he were not ill. As a revisionist of his own work he is sure to revise any publication that he writes. Chasing the impossible goal of perfection. Something that many writers aim for but may never achieve.
The end of the story is also interesting as Dencombe appears to accept that he will never write again. He knows that his mind may be fertile but his body has let him down. If anything there is a degree of sadness at the end of the story as Dencombe does not give himself the recognition he deserves. His continual goal of chasing perfection will be fruitless. As perfection often is. Rather than enjoying what he has achieved (which he does briefly) Dencombe laments what he has not done. What he has not achieved. His readers, including Hugh, may be content with his offerings but for Dencombe his words are in some way lacking. Like a painter Dencombe may not have painted the picture that he saw in his mind. There will be no second chance for Dencombe and he will be remembered for what he has written. Unfortunately for Dencombe that is not necessarily a good thing. As a writer he wished to express himself and as a writer he may have felt that this was not something that he achieved. However regardless of this Hugh will remain full of admiration for Dencombe and his writing. Which may be the point that James is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that the writer will never sit at ease on publication of a piece of writing. Whereas the reader will revel in the delights of what they are reading.