Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The reader’s interest in this tale is maintained in two ways: first, through the external drama of the narrator’s quest for the papers; second, through the internal drama of his moral decline. James intentionally draws out the action, building suspense by allowing the narrator a summer to win his landlady’s trust and to ascertain that the papers do exist. Parallel to this quest is the slow erosion of the narrator’s code of social behavior. He jokes at the beginning of the summer that he will do anything to get the papers, but clearly he does not mean it; by the end, he is willing to marry a woman he finds repulsive.
James emphasizes this change in his narrator by employing first-person narration and creating the character of the confidante, Mrs. Prest. As the narrator explains, and tries to justify, his motives to Mrs. Prest, he exposes all of his prevarication and male chauvinism. He tries to blame his actions on Mrs. Prest, saying that she is the one who suggested that he go to live with the Misses Bordereau, an idea which would not have occurred to him otherwise. Throughout the tale, he implies that women are more deceptive than men, and blames his final defeat on Juliana and Tita rather than identify his lack of honesty as the source of the problem. He is, indeed, a publishing scoundrel, but he admits only to being “not very delicate.” In his voice at the end can be heard, not the wisdom of a man who has learned the dangers of manipulating others, but the bitterness of a man who will never fully understand himself.
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Juliana’s palace. Venetian home of the American expatriate Juliana Bordereau. Arriving at this home by gondola via one of Venice’s hundreds of canals, the unnamed narrator observes not only his expensive quarters and the stairway from them down to Juliana’s receiving room but also her hallway, her doors, the location of her and Tina’s private rooms, and their tattered garden. A main feature of Juliana’s bedroom is her old secretary desk, in which the narrator concludes the Aspern papers are secreted. His late-night advance toward the desk is imaged as a combination of the military and the sexual. His being seen and thwarted by Juliana amounts to an ignominious retreat and an embarrassing rebuff.
Tina’s garden. Garden of Juliana’s niece, or grandniece, Tina Bordereau (called Tita in the original edition of the novel). The narrator courts Juliana’s favor by planting flowers and bombarding her “citadel” with bouquets. The garden becomes edenic when Juliana, with devilish intent, encourages the narrator to tryst there with innocent Tina, who promises to help him. Juliana’s death causes trouble, because Tina, at best a twisted Eve, will surrender the papers only upon condition of marriage. Ultimately the narrator suffers expulsion.
*Venice. Northeastern Italian city famous for its avenues of canals. In lacking streets and vehicles and having sociable pedestrians, Venice strikes the narrator as communal, even apartment-like—ironically, because the Bordereaus become no family for him. He delights in the Piazza of San Marco but never prays in its beckoning church. He takes Tina to Florian’s, a restaurant famous for its ices. He goes to the Lido, Venice’s famous beach, but never bathes. At sunset he stands before the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, the cruel Venetian mercenary, again, ironically, because though also cruel and greedy the narrator is both dwarfed by the lofty statue and unsuccessful in his mission.
The sinuous waterways of Venice, along which the narrator often moves between the palazzo and the main parts of town, both alone, sometimes aimlessly, and once with Tina, symbolize by means of alternate sunshine and darkness his mental maze, combining ambition, hopes, doubts, worries, and gloom.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bell, Millicent. “The Aspern Papers: The Unvisitable Past.” In Meaning in Henry James. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Insightful examination of James’s own “second thoughts” as revealed in a preface written twenty years later for a revised edition. Bell’s examination of James’s revisions is particularly enlightening.
Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. An acclaimed James scholar’s biographical criticism is original and pertinent.
Hocks, Richard A. Henry James: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Contains a challenging exposition of critic Dennis Pahl’s “deconstruction” of The Aspern Papers, relatively free of critical jargon. Good discussion of the story’s “framing device.”
Neider, Charles, ed. Short Novels of the Masters. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. A reliable introduction to the novella—sensible, concise, and literate.
Perosa, Sergio. “Henry James: The Aspern Papers.” In Leon Edel and Literary Art, edited by Lyall H. Powers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988. A unique perspective from an Italian professor of Anglo-American literature.