The term “vampirism” has been used to label those characters in Henry James’s fiction who will stop at nothing to get what they want. Often it is a psychological sort of vampirism in which one person bullies another into submission. In The Aspern Papers, the vampirism is more substantive. The young scholar wants something that belongs to someone else—the papers—and he schemes to get them regardless of the consequences to their owner, the aging and infirm Juliana Bordereau, or to her penniless niece, Tita. In his ruthless quest for these papers, he is not above lying, dissembling, flattering, even stealing. At the same time he lies to himself, rationalizing his duplicity, justifying his strategies as necessary in an effort to rescue valuable materials from a selfish old woman who does not appreciate their value.
As is the case with so much of James’s fiction, no character in The Aspern Papers is above reproach. It is clear from the first encounter that the scholar has met his match in the crafty old Juliana when she charges him an outrageous rent, which he pays without batting an eye. At that moment, both recognize that they are adversaries, but Juliana has the upper hand because she has the papers (or so she lets him believe). She uses her age and eccentricity to her advantage. Likewise, Tita, though slow to catch on, soon enough sees how, by letting herself be used, she can play both ends against the middle. She becomes the go-between, deceiving both the scholar and her aunt. When her scheme backfires, she takes revenge on the scholar by telling him she has burned the papers. It is exquisitely cruel revenge, all the more so if it is a lie and there never were any papers.
The irony is bitter in this story, for it is quite possible that time, energy, and cunning are expended over papers that either do not exist or do not amount to much. Tita’s renunciation of the scholar—after she has burned her bridges—is a moment of the most hollow triumph, for in winning the game with the scholar, she has lost even more than he has.
Much has been made of James’s keen dramatic sense, and it is nowhere more evident than in The Aspern Papers. At select moments along the way, there are climactic scenes at the end of which a curtain seems to fall. There is, for example, the highly theatrical scene in which Juliana catches the scholar as he is about to pilfer the papers....
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