Review: The Story of a Year by Henry James

Genre: short story
Published: 1865 (March)
Available online: here

I've been really unfocused lately. I am moving along in my Know Your James project faster than I feel like reviewing. And I do want to review because I fear I will just forget everything if I don't. I am half-assedly reading some literary theory. I struggle with my post on Villette, because it's just one of those books that give me feelings. More feelings than I know how to express. And on top of this, I will soon need to write boring papers on boring topics for school. But one thing at a time: let's focus on James' second published story. 

I think I would have happier with this being James' first effort. It's not that I didn't appreciate some of the elements of A Tragedy of Error, because I did, but I just couldn't understand what made James publish it, what made him look at that material that could have been improved in so many ways and decide it was something he wanted the whole world to see. It just wasn't a piece to write home about. I do understand why he'd choose to publish this second story, though. The writing is more polished; the plotline more developed; the meaning, I think, subtler. 

John and Elizabeth and two young people that get engaged during John's leave from the Union Army. From the beginning, it is clear what the pattern of their relationship is. John is the reasonable one, the adult, and Elizabeth looks up to him. When John tells her he might die in the war, she replies with "Oh, my dear friend! [...] I wish you could advise me all my life." It's really a telling statement. She's saying she wants him to live, but the phrasing also hints at a need for guidance. Elizabeth's found in her fiancé an incentive to be good:
Elizabeth went up stairs buoyant with her young love. It had dawned upon her like a new life, -- a life positively worth the living. Hereby she would subsist and cost nobody anything. In it she was boundlessly rich. She would make it the hidden spring of a hundred praiseworthy deeds. She would begin the career of duty: she would enjoy boundless equanimity: she would raise her whole being to the level of her sublime passion. She would practice charity, humility, piety, -- in fine, all the virtues: together with certain morceaux of Beethoven and Chopin. She would walk the earth like one glorified. She would do homage to the best of men by inviolate secrecy. Here, by I know not what gentle transition, as she lay in the quiet darkness, Elizabeth covered her pillow with a flood of tears.
But John insists to keep their engagement secret, because he thinks Elizabeth is too young to make such an important decision. He wants her to be free and "responsible to herself" during the year he's away. What secrecy accomplishes is to deprive Elizabeth of an outer conscience. If the engagement had been publicly announced, society would have provided the checks on Elizabeth's behavior. She, for example, couldn't have been unfaithful to John without facing social consequences. Without these external checks, Elizabeth has to negotiate her behavior on her own. And, as her half-baked plans of becoming Lady Bountiful show, she's not well-suited to do that.

As John returns to the war, Elizabeth goes through a phase where she adores her hero from afar, reads his letters aloud and spends the rest of her time thinking of him. But as the months pass, she becomes bored with his memory; she becomes restless. The very things she used to admire in John now annoy her. Encouraged by John's mother, who secretly knows about the engagement and wants to see it fail, Elizabeth goes into society, where she meets a Mr. Bruce whose attentions she encourages. But before she gets to the stage where she has to decide whether to keep her promise, she learns that John was severely injured and she is of course seized by remorse. The detailed look at Lizzie's conflicted feelings (thrown into relief by a quasi-Freudian dream where John dies blessing her union with Mr. Bruce) is the most interesting aspect of this story. 

When she thinks John's dying, Elizabeth accepts Mr. Bruce's proposal. When John seems to be better she rejects Mr. Bruce. When John gives her his blessing to be with Mr. Bruce and then dies, she finally makes her moral decision. She decides to reject Mr. Bruce for good in order to "do justice to her old love." But Mr. Bruce is not so easily deterred and the ending is left open:
"No! no! no!" she almost shrieked, turning about in the path. " I forbid you to follow me!"

But for all that, he went in.
It is a good closing sentence, isn't it?

For all some passages were a little purple-ish, I quite liked this story. I liked how James wove in echoes of the war in it (in the first scene, John "had shouldered [Lizzie's] sun-umbrella after the fashion of a musket on a march" and he thinks of battle when he looks at the clouds; later Elizabeth is "a veteran at home"). I liked that it progressed relatively smoothly despite covering a pretty long period of time. I liked the use of irony in it. And the best part is that these stories will only get better and better.

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