58 pages 1 hour read

Morley Callaghan

All the Years of Her Life

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1936

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “All the Years of Her Life”

Edward Morley Callaghan’s short story presents a unique coming-of-age tale, as it centers on a young man named Alfred Higgins who suddenly realizes—in a single moment at the story’s end—that he must now grow up. The story unfolds through third-person limited narration that takes Alfred’s point of view and involves themes of The Development of Empathy, The True Meaning of Maturity, and The Selflessness of Maternal Love. It employs a minimalist style (similar to Ernest Hemingway, for example, with whom Callaghan was friends), offering readers little expository background on the narrative’s characters, setting, or historical context.

Callaghan’s story was first published in the June 8, 1935, issue of The New Yorker; Callaghan subsequently republished it in 1936 in a collection entitled Now That April’s Here and Other Stories. By the late 1920s, Callaghan had become one of relatively few Canadian fiction writers of note; he was very prolific throughout the early 1930s, penning several novels that preceded his short story collection in 1936. This guide refers to the original publication of Callaghan’s story in the 1935 issue of The New Yorker.

“All the Years of Her Life” opens in a drugstore that has just closed. Alfred Higgins and his boss (Mr. Sam Carr, the owner of the drugstore) are preparing to leave for the evening. Mr. Carr stops Alfred before the latter can leave and reveals that he suspects the young man has been shoplifting from the drugstore for some time. He asks Alfred to empty his pockets of a few items he knows Alfred has taken: “a compact and a lipstick and at least two tubes of toothpaste” (17). Mr. Carr’s quiet and polite tone unnerves the young man, but his first response to Mr. Carr’s request is utter denial. Mr. Carr responds simply by nodding at the young man. This composure frightens Alfred, who then empties his pockets. Mr. Carr asks Alfred how long his “petty thieving” has been going on, and Alfred insists this is his first offense; however, Mr. Carr is convinced that he is lying.

A narrative aside reveals that since leaving school Alfred has gotten into some kind of trouble at each job he has held. Alfred still lives at home with his parents, although his two older brothers and his sister have all married and left the nest. This set of conditions could be acceptable to his parents, the narrator notes, if Alfred could only manage to hold down steady work.

Alfred is terrified in this confrontation with Mr. Carr—a feeling with which he has become familiar during past employment experiences. Mr. Carr considers calling the police but instead threatens to call Alfred’s father. Alfred tells Mr. Carr that his father isn’t available because he works late hours as a printer; only his mother is at home. Mr. Carr resolves to call Alfred’s mother to come to the store. This worries Alfred, though less than the prospect of the police being called.

Before his mother arrives, Alfred anxiously ponders how his mother will appear when she reaches the store: She may come rushing in, perhaps crying, maybe contemptuous toward her son, possibly with “eyes blazing” (17). Mr. Carr gazes out the store window, looking for a passing cop he may also call in.

When Alfred’s mother enters the store, her demeanor catches him off guard. Though a bit disheveled and looking like she left their house in a hurry, Alfred’s mother is smiling, “dignified,” and has an air of total calm. Her demeanor even gives Mr. Carr pause, making him feel a bit “embarrassed.” Mr. Carr nevertheless tells Alfred’s mother what he has done, and she calmly asks her son if his boss’s accusations are true. Alfred immediately confesses, admitting that he wanted money to use while out with his friends. Mr. Carr lets Alfred’s mother know that he should get the police involved. However, in a very gentle and humble manner, Alfred’s mother requests that Mr. Carr allow her to take Alfred home. Alfred realizes that Mr. Carr is just as puzzled by his mother’s calm composure as he is, yet—with an air of admiration—Mr. Carr agrees to send the young man home without police involvement. However, he does fire Alfred.

When Alfred and his mother leave and begin their walk home, her composure does not markedly change, although she now looks worried. As Alfred tells his mother this will not happen again, she merely asks him to be quiet. When they arrive home, Mrs. Higgins still does not seem to be angry; though she expresses disapproval of her son’s actions, they do not argue, and she simply tells him to go to bed.

Alfred goes to his room upstairs but then decides to approach his mother so that he can express how pleased he was with her handling of the situation. However, when he reaches the kitchen, the woman he sees does not seem to be the serenely self-possessed woman from the drugstore. His mother looks frightened; her hand trembles as she pours her tea, and as she takes a sip, her lips grope weakly for her teacup. Alfred suddenly realizes how he has been wearing his mother down each time he gets into trouble. His mother’s complex emotions rush upon Alfred in an unexpected moment of clarity, and he abruptly recognizes that his reckless youth must come to an end.