The Mote in the Middle Distance, H*nry J*m*s Themes

Max Beerbohm

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Max Beerbohm was a master in his time not only of caricature but of parody as well. Though best remembered now for his cartoons of well-known contemporaries such as King Edward VII and Lytton Strachey, Beerbohm also wrote short stories, essays, and an amusing satirical novel of Oxford undergraduate life, Zuleika Dobson: Or, An Oxford Love Story (1911), probably his most famous single prose piece. “The Mote in the Middle Distance, H*nry J*m*s” is only one parody in a collection entitled A Christmas Garland Woven by Max Beerbohm (1912). This volume, in which each essay mimics the style of a famous contemporary writer, includes imitations of the writings of Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Rudyard Kipling, George Meredith, and others. The unifying topic is the celebration of Christmas; they all concern the holiday season in some way. Beerbohm’s deft aping of his “models,” as he called them, almost all originally appeared in a London magazine, Saturday Review.

The central images of this short travesty are appropriately Jamesian. The two characters are typically left indistinct in both physical appearance and psychological makeup. As in many James novels and short stories, the actual plot seems secondary to the close mental and emotional examination of the characters. However, as in James, Beerbohm seems never to reveal the exact perspective of his protagonist (Keith Tantalus’s very name suggests the condition...

(The entire section is 452 words.)