Horrors of War
The primary theme of ‘‘The First Year of My Life’’ is the horror of war. The ultimate horror of the war is that it colors everything. It frames the baby’s birth date and her inability to smile. It frames her brother’s behavior. The image of a six-year-old marching about with a toy gun and singing war-themed nursery rhymes is chilling. It is made even more so when the women who have lost their husbands and sons in the war find such play acting endearing. The conspicuous absence of the narrator’s father also hints at this horror. Secondly, the literal horror of the war is seen through the narrator’s omniscience. She actually witnesses the ‘‘slaughter’’ and the bloody battles. Often, the baby watches the battles on the front in order to understand what is going on. She witnesses the execution of the deposed Russian czar and his family. She recounts the riots in eastern Europe. She sees the homeless and starving people there. She explains that her uncle, who has been gassed, will never fully recover; but, he continues to wear his uniform and will return to the fighting nonetheless. In addition, she listens in on the arguments in the British Parliament. The entire story serves as a means of recounting the horrors of war. This is most eloquently indicated when one considers the story’s title in light of the narrator’s statement that it is ‘‘the very worst year that the world had ever seen so far.’’ The horrors of war are also indicated more concretely, as when the narrator mentions the more than eight million dead soldiers and the more than twenty million wounded soldiers. The horrors of war are additionally indicated in the deaths of the poets. Yet, their poetry remains, quoted by the women in black.
These horrors can also be seen in contrast to the relative normality of the United Kingdom; the king and queen celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary with great pomp and circumstance. People complain about the high income tax and food rations; they rush to work but are nevertheless able to smile, to open their mouths and show their teeth. The forced normality in Britain only serves as a stark contrast to the death and destruction on the front, and to the ravaged citizenry of eastern Europe. The horrors of war are ultimately commented on by the narrator’s first smile. Asquith’s claim that the war had a positive effect, that it cleansed and purged the world, is preposterous. It certainly seems so in light of all that the baby has witnessed and recounted. This absurdity, that war makes the world new, is the inspiration for the narrator’s first smile.
Failure of Art
A secondary theme in Spark’s story is the failure and powerlessness of art. All of the luminary artists of the day, from George Bernard Shaw to Joseph Conrad to Virginia Woolf, are portrayed doing something mundane. The implication is that their work can hardly be uplifting given that it is created by such fallible and unremarkable creatures. ‘‘So what if Pablo Picasso is getting married,’’ the narrator seems to say, ‘‘millions are dying.’’ The failure of art is most remarkably indicated when the narrator notes that she is spying on a production of The Playboy of the Western World. The narrator is unable to pay attention to the play, so she instead listens to the political arguments in Parliament. Yet, she prefers watching the bloody battles to both the play and the Parliament. Art, then, is less compelling than blood. The play the narrator refers to is by John Millington Synge and was first produced in 1907. It portrays a farmer who claims that he has killed his father. Yet, the people who hear his story are more interested in the salacious content than the moral dilemma it poses. Even the plot of the play that the narrator refers to is a comment on the inability of art to address death, war, or immorality. The dead war poets also indicate the failure of art. Yes, their poetry remains, but they are dead. Their poetry can comfort the women in mourning, but it cannot restore their loved ones.
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.