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 even now working to prove it. In doing so, she calls on the names of such hallowed institutions as Harvard University in order to lend more power to her claims. She also attempts to further bolster her assertion by noting that there is proof of this phenomenon in the residual psychic powers of adults, or in the retention of such abilities in the mature members of more primitive cultures. This statement requires much equivocation, and this is largely because the entire story relies on readers’ acceptance of this conceit. In other words, if readers are unable to suspend their disbelief at the idea of omniscient infants, then the ensuing story becomes entirely meaningless.
And this, of course, would be a shame, as the story does have great meaning. Ostensibly, it addresses the horrors of war. Secondarily, it addresses the failure of art as a redeeming quality in the face of war. Yet, on another, deeper, level the story truly critiques the stubborn persistence of civilization in the face of its own destruction. Even as civilization is falling apart, even as the starving and homeless riot in eastern Europe, those in western Europe (specifically the United Kingdom) attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy. The women laugh at the narrator’s brother, who pretends to be a soldier. They wear mourning and yet they nevertheless laugh and coo at the baby. They sing a nursery rhyme about soldiers to the narrator in an attempt to soothe her, but the narrator states, ‘‘I never heard a sillier song.’’ The narrator’s disdain for these women and their cheerfulness is clear. Though their husbands and sons may be dead, they seem blissfully unaware of the horrors of war, or of its daily atrocities. Yet, the baby in her omniscience is keenly aware of them. Yes, she does not smile because of the war, but it seems even more apt to remark that she does not smile because those around her can. The language the narrator uses to describe these smiles (‘‘the big people around me bared their teeth’’) could easily depict a growl or a snarl. Given this description, the narrator appears to perceive something aggressive and outlandish, absurd even, in these smiles.
This same absurdity is clear in the images the narrator presents of the artists and political figures she spies upon. Virginia Woolf is yawning; George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad are coincidentally telling someone to be quiet; Herbert Henry Asquith is complaining, drinking, or making passes at a woman. These seemingly brilliant personages are portrayed as banal, even feeble. Whatever power civilization has ascribed to them, the narrator seems to indicate, is inherently meaningless. And so, for much of the story, the narrator focuses on growing stronger, on eating and sleeping and gaining control of her motor functions. She must grow so she can do something about the war; and yet the people around her, those who already have control of their bodily functions, seemingly do nothing. They complain about ration cards as those in the East starve. They chat about the king and queen’s silver anniversary, even as the ‘‘slaughter’’ continues.
This tension, between the seemingly civilized moments lived through by the narrator, and the graphic images of war witnessed in her omniscience, largely carries the story. This observation is most cogently made by Mona Knapp in World Literature Today. For instance, Knapp notes that the story is ‘‘a singularly inspired contrasting of personal and historical events.’’ It is this tension, this balance, that creates Spark’s presumably desired effect, that of truly communicating the horrors inherent in the war. Certainly, the story is largely told through these contrasts; the narrative constantly flashes between bizarre moments of domesticity and descriptions of the chaos and bloodshed at the front. The horrors of the war are most starkly and undeniably felt via this contrast and the bloodshed is most severely underlined when juxtaposed with the forced normalcy of civilian life.
In fact, for New York Times Book Review contributor David Lodge, this contrasting balancing act ‘‘achieves its effect by a breathtaking compression.’’ (The narrator does, after all, relate the end of the war and her first year of life in a mere six pages.) In doing so, Lodge observes that Spark ‘‘cross-cuts vivid images of military carnage with satiric vignettes of civilian inanity and nursery routine.’’ This contrast (from which the reader can ultimately derive the story’s intended meaning) results, according to Lodge, in an ‘‘effect’’ that ‘‘is both shocking and exhilarating—the literary equivalent of riding a roller coaster, full of sudden swoops and lurches from the comic to the tragic and back again.’’
Certainly, it would seem that the baby’s omniscience is essential to achieving this ‘‘effect.’’ No matter how disingenuous, the story must be told by a baby in order to bring a sense of innocence to the judgment being passed. The baby is meant as a tabula rasa (a blank slate), and can be accepted as an impartial mirror; one that, when held up to society, can merely reflect that which appears therein. Still, as each day goes by, the baby becomes less and less of a blank slate, and she accumulates more and more knowledge of the world around her. What she finds is inarguably bleak, so much so, that the only thing that can bring her to smile is the absurd notion that war, massive death, has cleansed the world. Given that the story was written in 1975, the naı¨vete´ of Asquith’s statement is exceedingly clear to both the writer and the reader.
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.
Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on ‘‘The First Year of My Life,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.