The Altar of the Dead Themes

Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story is perhaps the most powerful presentation in Henry James’s entire oeuvre of two of his most important themes: mourning and renunciation. Stransom’s obsession with the memory of his departed friends is linked to his having abandoned any other form of living, to his characteristically Jamesian renunciation of an active life for one of contemplation and privacy. Even the bond that is forged, then broken, between Stransom and the nameless young lady depends crucially on their mutual recognition that the truly human act is the abandonment of life in favor of memorializing the dead. Her career as a writer and his vaguely specified affairs do not impinge in any significant way on the main action, which is focused on their mutual mourning and the conflict that arises out of their inability to share a single attitude toward one of their dead.

Like many of James’s shorter tales, this one, too, is concerned with the life of the artist, although here the figure of the artist is represented in the pious Stransom, whose work of art is neither novel nor painting but the very altar that he endows and in a way even creates. The clear emphasis on the importance of symmetry and harmony among the lighted candles, on the price that Stransom must pay in order to achieve this perfection (his death is necessary to complete both the altar and the tale itself)—these in other contexts are characteristic features of James’s conception of the artist’s life and work. For James, the artist must renounce participation in the active affairs of the world and devote himself to the solitary and generally unappreciated labor of aesthetic understanding. The nameless young lady’s profession as a writer serves to counterpoint the genuine devotion to art that she and Stransom share against the false labors of commercial scribbling. As in many other contexts throughout the James canon (most graphically in the short story “The Next Time”), public fame and commercial success are at absolute loggerheads with authentically aesthetic achievement. The price of such devotion, as the fate of Stransom illustrates, is ultimately life itself. One could say that Stransom’s death is merely the logical and necessary outcome of a life that has effectively renounced the living from the moment that its focus became exclusively the mourning over the memory of departed friends.