‘‘The First Year of My Life’’ begins with the unnamed narrator’s statement: ‘‘I was born on the first day of the second month of the last year of the First World War, a Friday.’’ In other words, the narrator was born on February 1, 1918 (the same date that Spark was born). The story continues with the narrator noting that she will not smile for her entire first year of life. The implication is that the baby will not smile because of the war. Family members and family friends all try to get the baby to smile. The narrator then states that she was told about this later, but that she already knew this. She knew this because human babies are omniscient for their first year of life. Even now, psychologists and scientists are studying and working to prove this phenomenon. The narrator also notes that poets and artists have always known this. Parts of this power remain, the narrator says, in adults with psychic abilities or in members of primitive cultures.
The narrator is able to recall her first year of life in detail, ‘‘the very worst year that the world had ever seen so far.’’ She remarks that she was born helpless and unable to communicate. She is surrounded by women dressed in mourning. They have lost husbands or sons, and the narrator quips that they are absentminded and should go find the men they misplaced. The women coo at the narrator, but she is not impressed; nor is she moved to smile.
The narrator’s mother observes that babies are unable to smile until they are three months old. Meanwhile, the narrator’s six-year-old brother marches about carrying a toy gun and singing childish war ditties. The women find it adorable.
When the narrator is ten days old, Russia drops out of the war. The Russians are still reeling from their recent revolution, and the narrator, in her omniscience, can see the deposed czar and his family in prison. The narrator then notes that she sleeps most of the day in order to gain her strength. She will need it given the state of the world. The fighting on the Western Front has grown increasingly bloody and chaotic. The narrator grows concerned about the future and then falls asleep again.
It is now March 21. The narrator is fifty days old, and the German Spring Offensive (one of the bloodier and more aggressive series of battles on the Western Front) has begun. The narrator can see the ‘‘slaughter.’’ She cries and glowers at the sight. The women sing the absurd war ditty earlier sung by the narrator’s brother. They do so in an attempt to soothe her.
The narrator can see the riots and the starving and homeless people in Eastern Europe. She can see the people in London rushing to work and wishing that the war would finally end. Nevertheless, the adults nearby show their teeth, which means they are smiling. They complain about ration cards.
The baby tunes in on the writers Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad. Coincidentally, both are telling someone to be quiet. Still, this is not enough to make her smile; and she is supposed to do so any day now. The narrator sees the women in Turkey in their harems, dressed in black. They are boring.
Back at home, there are more women in black, but it is a ‘‘British black.’’ This is the first concrete indication of the narrator’s location. The baby’s uncle is present. He is coughing because he was gassed in the trenches and is still wearing his uniform. Meanwhile, the commander of the Allied Forces (comprised of troops from Britain, the United States, Russia, Belgium, France, Canada, Australia, and Italy) shouts a rallying war cry in French. Roughly translated, his cry means ‘‘everyone to war!’’ The narrator’s uncle will never truly recover from being gassed, but he must still return to the front.
The narrator grows bigger and stronger— she must be strong to deal with all these awful people.
Bodies are piling up. In France, the soldiers are fleeing. All of the bravest and best have already met their ends. The narrator then recounts her graphic visions of the war.
In her omniscience, the narrator watches a play, listens in on the British Parliament, and spies on the writer Virginia Woolf, who is writing in her diary. She nevertheless prefers to watch the carnage on the Western Front. That way, she is prepared for the worst and knows exactly where things stand.
At five months of age, the baby is able to grab things and hold up her head. Her aunts worry because she hasn’t smiled yet. Here, it is finally revealed that the baby is a girl (this fact remains a mystery for the first half of the narrative).
The rich and powerful are getting married and celebrating their anniversaries in public displays filled with pomp and circumstance. The commander’s war cry is reiterated. Meanwhile, income tax in England is higher than ever. The Russian czar and his family have been moved to Siberia, and the baby witnesses their execution.
At her five-month checkup, the doctor declares the narrator to be strong and healthy. The narrator is pleased. The war cry is reiterated once again. The narrator has begun to crawl. The philosopher Bertrand Russell has been imprisoned for his writings in support of peace.
At the front, it seems the Germans are losing the war, yet they are winning the battles. (This is an ironic statement.) People, especially the rich, continue to complain about the income tax. Women over thirty are granted the right to vote. The narrator eavesdrops on former Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith (who is referred to in the story as Mr. Asquith or Asquith), and the narrator admits that she slept through his famous speech, given in the House of Commons after the armistice (cease-fire) on November 11. She does, however, eavesdrop on a private conversation of his.
On the day the armistice is signed, the narrator stands on her own for the first time. Her teeth are coming in and she weighs twenty pounds. The narrator states that over eight million soldiers have been killed and over twenty million have been wounded. The women recite poetry about the war and death and note that most of the poets were soldiers and that almost all of them have been killed.
It is February. A party is being held in honor of the baby’s first birthday. Though the war has ended, she still has not smiled. The adults worry over this lack. People at the party are talking about Asquith, on whom the narrator has recently eavesdropped. He was drunk and was behaving toward a woman ‘‘in a very friendly fashion.’’
One of the women at the party speaks of the poet Wilfred Owen and, quoting his poetry, mourns his death in the war. The other children at the party make messes. More war poetry is quoted, and more people arrive at the party. They discuss Asquith’s speech following the armistice and the fact that the baby never smiles. The narrator’s mother is upset by this latter topic and quickly comes to her daughter’s defense.
A stout man at the party quotes Asquith’s speech, in which the former prime minister declares that the war has purified the world: ‘‘All things have become new. In this great cleansing and purging it has been the privilege of our country to play her part.’’ It is this quotation that finally makes the narrator smile. Coincidentally, her brother has blown out the candle on her cake at the same moment, and the adults assume it is this event that has finally caused her to smile. Everyone is pleased, especially the baby’s mother.
The narrator states that for the rest of her life she has lived and smiled just as any other normal person. But, when she truly smiles, it is always because of the words of the gentlemanly (and now deceased) Mr. Asquith.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Muriel Spark – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.