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 about the Duke of York and his soldiers. While the women find this adorable, the narrator is not amused. Later, at the end of the story, when the narrator finally smiles, the partygoers believe it is because her brother has blown out her birthday candle.
No father figure appears in the story, and this is notable in that the narrator’s father may be at war or may be dead. Since no mention is ever made of him, no mention is made of his possible fate. This uncertainty underscores the way in which the war has changed the expected structure of the characters’ lives.
Literary and Artistic Figures
Numerous literary and artistic figures of the day are mentioned by the narrator. For the most part, she spies on these figures as they participate in mundane tasks. The writers Bernard Shaw (George Bernard Shaw) and Joseph Conrad are seen telling someone to be quiet. Virginia Woolf is spied mid-yawn. Pablo Picasso’s wedding is mentioned. In essence, these literary and artistic figures are not individual characters, but one character as a whole. They serve to illustrate that the great figures of the day (much like Asquith) are normal human beings. This seems to be a sly comment on the inability of art to address or redress the atrocities of war. Art, like war, is made by mere human beings.
The narrator’s mother figures little in the story. The only time the narrator pays any attention to her is when the subject of the baby’s inability to smile is broached. Early on, the mother comments that babies are unable to smile until they are three months old. Later, the mother comes to the narrator’s defense when the baby still has not smiled. The mother is also portrayed as overjoyed when the narrator finally does smile.
The unnamed narrator is an infant girl who is introduced on the day of her birth. At first, her gender and location are unclear, though it is later revealed that she is a baby girl living in the United Kingdom. The narrator is the story’s main character and protagonist, an omniscient infant (like all infants, according to the narrator) who takes readers through the first year of her life. That first year is eventful in that it encompasses the final months of World War I. The narrator relates events of the war and its end alongside more mundane observations regarding her physical development. The main point of both of these topics hinges on her inability to smile, a fact that does not bother her but that does trouble those around her. Yet, as the baby makes clear, in the wake of such carnage, there is little to smile about.
The stout man attends the narrator’s first birthday party. It is he who quotes Asquith’s speech, inadvertently bringing about the baby’s first smile.
The narrator’s uncle is a soldier who has returned home to recover from his injuries. He was gassed at the front and is constantly coughing. He still dresses in his uniform and will have to return to active duty even though, as the narrator notes, he will never fully recover from having been gassed.
The narrator notes that she is constantly surrounded by women or by her aunties. These women all try to get the baby to laugh or smile. They are all dressed in black, and many have lost their sons or their husbands in the war. The baby looks down on these women; their feeble attempts to make her laugh are met with scorn. The women think that the narrator’s brother is adorable for pretending to be a soldier. One of the women quotes from poems by poets who died fighting the war. The women comprise one character as a whole because they are indistinguishable from one another. They dress and act alike.
World War I
In a sense, World War I is a character in the story. It frames the context of the entire tale; even the date of the narrator’s birth is noted in relation to the war. The women and their behavior, all that they talk about, is colored by the war. Even the behavior of the narrator’s six-year-old brother is influenced by the war. The narrator does not smile because of the war; yet, ironically, she smiles because of something that is said regarding the war.
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.