The Story of a Year
The events of the Civil War have been interpreted and reflected in numerous works of American authors. Henry James is no exception. In fact, the time and space constraints always leave the mark on the literary output of this or that writer. Henry James The Story of a Year is a well-read short story, because the writer sifted the historical events as well as cultural heritage of the epoch through his young mind and heart and gave modern day readers a splendid opportunity to relate to the characters feelings and thoughts.
James was twenty one when the story first appeared in The Atlantic and had success with the readership. Although it pivots upon the melodramatic course of events, it is not devoid of a realistic touch. The combination of realism with romanticism has been defined as a local color or, in other words, the movement in the American literature between the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century. James could not be indifferent to one of the greatest events of at his time which was simply the turning point in the American history. When the war broke out, James was eighteen and full of hopes for the bright future. Three years later, when the war ended, it was difficult to harbor any hopes taking into account the sufferings and hardships of the participants. Even though he was a detached observer, he could not but sympathize with the people who shed blood for the common good. The introduction of his story clearly indicates that after the Civil War, there is hardly a place for romanticism as harsh reality is ousting romantic aspirations:
My story begins as a great many stories have begun within the last three years, and indeed as a great many have ended; for, when the hero is despatched, does not the romance come to a stop? (James 1).
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James refuses a conventional ending when the heroine decides to give up the pleasures of life and opt for the life of a recluse in the memory of her deceased lover. I find the ending of the story the most intriguing as it poses more questions than gives answers. This story is a reflection of James transition from romanticism to realism, and one can feel between the lines the writers nostalgia for the old days and old values when women remained faithful to the men they loved, demonstrating commitment and virtues. In an unobtrusive way, James shows the gradual change in the attitudes and value systems of his contemporaries. War definitely leaves its imprints on the way people behave influencing what they treasure most and what makes sense to them. Lizzie becomes a new role model, who is more concerned with her own happiness and well-being than other people. She is a prototype of a modern woman although those who support feministic viewpoints would probably disagree.
The distant atmosphere of war penetrates through every line of the narration. War is everywhere, even in the clouds:
It seemed to him that their imagery was all of war, their great uneven masses were marshaled into the semblance of a battle [...].The background of the clouds, indeed, was like a land on fire, or a battle -ground illumined by another sunset, a country of blackened villages and crimsoned pastures (James, 1).
Culture and history are always embedded in fiction, because they are part and parcel of the authors reality. The Civil War has caused an irrevocable damage to the conventional romance as Henry James vividly demonstrates. Although it is one of many stories of local color which underscores the transition from idealism to disappointment, it is worth reading and exploring for its stereotypical characters and rich language which adds to the general atmosphere of nostalgia. The Story of a Year celebrates the pivotal moment in the American history and culture when individualism, success, achievement, and material comfort came into fashion as the core values of the American society.