Anu is the name of one of the children. It can be either a male or female name, and this child is not individualized in the story.
Chauffeur or Driver
The hairy-chested driver is a servant in the family and is in charge of the car and the garage. He lets the children help him wash the car.
The father is in the background since he is at work all day. When he comes home, the family has an evening ritual of being together in the yard.
The gardener gets angry when the children supposedly help him water the garden. He threatens to tell the parents of their bad behavior.
Manu seems to be the youngest child and is hardly aware of how to play hide-and-seek, because he doesn’t run and hide as quickly as the other children do. When he does try to hide, he trips, and Raghu . . . Read More
It is afternoon on a summer day in a Bombay suburb. It is too hot for the children to play outdoors, but they have been cooped up all day in the house and beg their mother to let them out. She has already bathed them and given them their tea. They promise to stay on the porch, but she knows they won’t. Finally, she opens the door and they run out, yelling with joy. The mother goes to have her own bath and put on a clean sari for the evening.
The afternoon is so hot that even animals are not stirring. Parrots, however, are aroused by the children’s cries and fly out of the eucalyptus tree. The children begin to push and shove and argue, and a sleeve gets torn. The older daughter, Mira, separates the fighting boys and organizes games for them. They begin a counting-out game to find out who should be ‘‘It’’ for hide-and-seek. Raghu is It. He objects and cries out to the others that they are supposed to stay on the porch, but they have already scattered. The . . . Read More
The first sentence of Muriel Spark’s ‘‘The First Year of My Life’’ (‘‘I was born on the first day of the second month of the last year of the First World War, a Friday’’) is arresting. It causes the reader to pause and calculate the actual date being referred to. It is also notable that this very date, February 1, 1918, is the actual date of the author’s birth. This knowledge lends the speaker a certain veracity, and it leads one to accept more easily the narrator’s later, and somewhat exaggerated, statement that it is ‘‘the very worst year that the world had ever seen so far.’’ This established veracity lends a sense of verisimilitude (the appearance of being truthful or real) to the narrator’s claim that all human babies are omniscient in their first year of life. Still, the narrator does appear to sense that this outlandish claim requires further explanation. She goes on to state that artists have always known this fact, and that scientists are . . . Read More
World War I
World War I began in 1914 and ended in 1918. It was the first mechanized war, the first to rely on advances in technology (such as airplanes and poison gas), and it was also the first worldwide conflict of the modern age. Accordingly, it had a lasting impact on the twentieth century, both politically and culturally. An estimated ten million soldiers were killed, and civilian casualties came to almost seven million. As Spark notes in her story, over eight million soldiers were killed and over twenty million were wounded, and these numbers are based in fact. Such massive numbers of deaths in war had not taken place before in recorded history.
Spark’s story reflects on the last year of the war. She constantly refers to the Western Front, where most of the slaughter was taking place. The Western Front began in Belgium, which German forces invaded in 1914, through France to the Vosges Mountains. Yet, from 1915 to 1917, despite . . . Read More
An allusion is a literary or artistic device that refers to a historical or mythological event or figure. It can also refer to another literary or artistic work. Allusions can ground a work in the time in which it is written or the time in which it is set. The narrator’s reciting of the details surrounding the war and its end are examples of the use of allusion to make the work seem more realistic or authentic. Other examples are the narrator’s mentions of women being granted the right to vote and the passage of the income tax.
In addition, when an allusion is made to a literary or artistic work, the piece in which it appears can take on the themes—or be contrasted to the themes—of the work being alluded to. This latter phenomenon occurs when the narrator mentions The Playboy of the Western World. In that play, the characters are interested in the salacious story of a murder, though they remain untroubled by the moral . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
Mr. Asquith in the story is the former prime minister and author/speaker of the words that ultimately cause the baby to smile. The baby admits initially that she slept through this speech, but she hears words from it repeated by the stout man at her birthday party. Nevertheless, the narrator has spied on Mr. Asquith previously on two occasions. In both instances he is portrayed as a normal, fallible human being. In the first moment, he is complaining about his political rival. In the second, he has been drinking and is putting his arm around a woman in a limousine. The character of Mr. Asquith is based on the historical figure of Herbert Henry Asquith, the prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1908 to 1916.
Brother The narrator’s brother is six years old. He is portrayed at two points in the story. First, the narrator notes that he is playing at being a soldier, marching around with a toy gun and singing a nursery song . . . Read More
‘‘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 . . . Read More
In ‘‘Federigo’s Falcon,’’ Boccaccio presents the reader with a woman, the lady Giovanna, who appears to exercise a sense of agency in her own life. A married woman, Giovanna ignores the apparently unwanted affections of Federigo, despite the fact that within the conventions of courtly love, which were socially accepted in her day, it would not have been outside the realm of possibility for her to allow herself a flirtation with Federigo. Yet she does not acknowledge Federigo, or the grand demonstrations of his affection, in any fashion. Despite the illusion of personal power and independence—and against her better judgment—Giovanna does her son’s bidding and follows her brothers’ wishes for her to remarry despite her protestations that she is content to be alone. Giovanna revolts against the authority of her brothers by choosing someone they do not approve of, namely, Federigo. Likewise, Federigo’s falcon is allowed to hunt, only she hunts for food for Federigo. . . . Read More
The Plague and Its Aftermath in Florence
In the years immediately preceding the arrival of the plague in Florence in 1348, the city suffered economically from the failure of three major banking houses within a span of four years (1343–1346). The nearby Po River Valley was struck by flash floods in 1345, and the city experienced widespread famine in 1346. Late in 1347, the plague reached Italy and spread along trade routes from port to port, from Catania in Sicily to Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. The plague reached Florence in 1348. Unbeknownst to fourteenth-century Italians, the disease was spread by the bite of fleas carried by rats, which ran rampant aboard ships and in port cities. The bacterial disease infects the lymph nodes of contaminated individuals and is known as the bubonic plague at this stage. It is characterized by black swellings, or buboes, in the victim’s armpits and groin area. When the infection spreads to the lungs, the disease is . . . Read More