Study Guide

The Aspern Papers

by Henry James

The Aspern Papers Themes

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

The namelessness of the narrator is in direct contrast to the prominence of Jeffrey Aspern, who, though long dead, is named continually This suggests that the narrator is a cipher, a man with little sense of himself who absorbs his identity from his idol. His work as an editor depends on Jeffrey Aspern’s creativity as a poet; his work as a biographer depends on the interesting travels and romances of Aspern’s life. The narrator tries to mold his own life to the shape of Aspern’s and even begins to imagine Aspern condoning his behavior and urging him on. The narrator is not only obsessed with Aspern’s papers; he wants to become Jeffrey Aspern.

The theme of such a gross obsession is explored through the fate of its victims, the most significant of whom is the narrator himself. The progress of his moral degradation controls the order of the story as he lies, orchestrates deception, commits bribery, and attempts thievery. Throughout the tale, he tries to justify his actions by implying that Juliana is a worse manipulator than himself, but after her death, the destructiveness of his obsession is fully revealed in his treatment of Tita.

James uses Tita to demonstrate how someone accustomed to being controlled by others can mature into a self-determined person. Tita’s existence has all been dependent on her aunt’s, and she leaves to Juliana plans for the future. She knows that she will inherit the editor’s rent payments but warns him nevertheless of Juliana’s manipulations, signaling her own dislike of such tricks. Very trusting, she accepts the editor’s assurances that he understands and does not mind continuing the arrangement, and believes in the sincerity of his attempts to flatter her and show her something of Venice. Falling in love with him, Tita resorts to manipulation of her own and attempts the feeble stratagem of offering him the papers if he will marry her. This moral slip, however, is only temporary. Embarrassed and disgusted with herself, Tita develops a sense of dignity by choosing to destroy the papers when they would still bring her either great wealth or a husband. With this act, she rises above the muddied morality of her aunt and the editor and recognizes the self-worth which has been denied her for a lifetime.