The Europeans is the last work of Henry James's early period. Published in 1878, this novella was written while James resided in Europe, primarily in London. His success with The American and Daisy Miller in the previous three years had established him as a significant writer of the cultural differences and engagements between the Old World, as it was fading into eventual democracies, and the New World, as it was poised to take a prime spot on the world stage.
In The Europeans, James brings his characters on a rare trip to the United States, specifically to New England. Himself an American, James was born in New York City, and thus has a slanted view of neighboring New England, specifically Boston. The seat of Puritanism, Boston does not have to cosmopolitan air that New York City had long had by the time of the novel's publication. In the narrative, James examines the character of the New England residence, as their Puritan rigidity is confronted by European laxity. The Wentworths symbolize the struggling hold on an isolated nation, refraining from being influenced by the rapidly back-sliding Continent. In the end, it is the European Eugenia who remains inflexible, refusing to be influenced by another culture. The character of Felix Young symbolizes what James hopes for the two regions that claim him: an amalgam of the best of both worlds, open to new experiences, pleasing to everyone, and making friends all the world over.
The Europeans received (and still receives) mixed reviews as to its quality compared to the rest of James’s works. He himself called it “shallow,” in response to his brother, William’s judgment. Yet many critics and readers view it as the finest of his works, showing the interweaving of the cultural themes that are so predominate in the writings of Henry James.
Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis
In Boston of the 1840s, Eugenia, the Baroness Münster, the wife of a German prince (the Prince of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein), looks out the window of the inn where she is staying with her brother, Felix, on their recent arrival in America from Europe. Although it is May, it is snowing. Eugenia is depressed by the gloominess of the Massachusetts capital and considers returning to Europe. Felix, however, is enjoying the land of his parents, engaging his artistic talents in procuring some funds for himself.
Eugenia is not pretty, but carries herself as if she is pretty, which functions almost as well. She criticizes everything around her, from the church spire to the fire in the fireplace. Thirty-three years of age, she is five years older than Felix. While Eugenia is negative and cynical, Felix is positive and personable. Soon the weather changes from winter to spring, and the brother and sister go for a walk about the town. Felix proposes that they go to visit their American cousins who live nearby. Eugenia declines until Felix has had a chance to look them over; then she will have him present her to them. Felix agrees, and he plans to go the next day.
The following day, a Sunday, the scene changes to the home of the Wentworths, the American cousins of Eugenia and Felix. Gertrude, the younger of two sisters, has decided that it is too nice of a day to go to church, so she stays home. Her sister, Charlotte, warns her that Mr. Brand, a neighbor may come, so she has left Gertrude the key to the cupboard. Charlotte is on the verge of leaving when Mr. Brand does indeed appear and begs Gertrude to go to church with him. She declines and tries to get him to leave. He says he will return later after church and then departs.
Gertrude settles down to read from The Arabian Nights when she notices someone standing there. Thinking that he might a prince like the one in her novel, she looks up to see it is Felix. He announces to her that he is her cousin. Seeing Gertrude sitting there, Felix confesses engagingly that he expected to be shown into his cousins’ presence by a servant, instead of this informal meeting. A conversation ensues, and Felix explains that he and Eugenia are the children of the half-sister of Gertrude’s father....
(The entire section is 954 words.)
Chapters 3 and 4 Summary and Analysis
Felix returns to Boston following his meeting with his Wentworth cousins and reports to Eugenia on his encounter. Not trusting Felix’s judgment, Eugenia tries to get facts out of him, but all he will tell them his opinion, which is very high and effusive. He describes their homes as “primitive,” but patriarchal. In describing his female cousins, Felix calls Charlotte the pretty one; by this, Eugenia knows that her brother is in love with Gertrude. Felix describes the other inhabitants: Lizzy (their cousin, but on the other side of the family), a young girl; Clifford, Gertrude’s and Charlotte’s tipsy brother; Mr. Bran, a preacher, and Mr. Acton, their cousin and Lizzy’s brother. This give Eugenia enough to go on, and she decides to make a visit the following day.
On arriving at the Wentworth home, the European siblings are met by their uncle, Mr. Wentworth, who has an air of responsibility and solemnity. Eugenia greets him, hoping that it was right for her to come. Wentworth welcomes her, but is intimidated by the brashness of his German/American niece. Charlotte is overcome with shyness, but Gertrude is quick to see through Eugenia’s manner. She sees her as putting on an act for politeness’ sake. The meeting is awkward and each side unsure of how to address each other as relatives.
Felix and Gertrude remain in the garden, where Felix asks Gertrude his impression of his sister. She states that she cannot tell as yet, since Eugenia strikes her as a singer singing an air. In other words, the performance is not over yet. Clifford, the brother of Gertrude and Charlotte, at last comes to meet his new cousin, as do Mr. Brand and Mr. Acton. Mr. Acton is seemingly the only one who feels comfortable around the German Baroness. Mr. Brand remains on the sidelines, literally, and in Eugenia’s attentions. Charlotte impulsively invites Felix and Eugenia to live with them.
The matter is discussed among the Wentworth clan. Charlotte wants to offer them a corner room in the house, but the suggestion of the separate house nearby is offered and deemed more suitable. Gertrude thinks this will allow them (especially...
(The entire section is 890 words.)
Chapters 5 and 6 Summary and Analysis
Mr. Wentworth visits his niece, Eugenia, each afternoon. In return, she comes to tea with the family a couple of hours after his visit. Mr. Wentworth, despite these frequent visits, cannot get use to Eugenia’s ways. He recalls that his older half-sister, Eugenia’s and Felix’s mother, had visited Europe with their aunt when she was twenty and never returned to America. She willfully married Adolphus Young and disappeared from the family. She was very infrequently mentioned, although Mr. Wentworth had heard vague reports of her having children. This background prevents him from getting to know her as much as he might. With Felix, however, the relationship was easier, due to Felix’s ebullient personality. It was impossible to dislike Felix. Additionally, his artistic talent gave him an air of foreignness that made his cousin Gertrude surprised by the family connection. Felix insists that he is an amateur, not an artist, which makes him seem even more “European.”
Felix asks Mr. Wentworth if he can paint a portrait of his uncle. Felix states that his face is like that of a cardinal or priest who had lived a pure and abstinent life. Mr. Wentworth is not impressed, but Eugenia jokes that her uncle must have a past. Offended, Mr. Wentworth refuses to be painted by Felix, but Gertrude begs him to paint her portrait. Her cousin, Lizzie, chides her for thinking that she is beautiful enough to be painted, but Gertrude says that she knows she is not, but simply thinks it would be interesting to be painted. Felix agrees, and begins to paint her portrait the next day. They speak of the family’s seeming inability to be anything but sad and serious. On her return home she is met by Mr. Brand, who confesses his love for her. She rebukes him, stating that she has rejected his love before and has not changed her mind. He remarks that she has changed since the arrival of her European cousins, and he loved her as she was before. She departs, but he says he believes that eventually she will return to him.
In contrast, Mr. Wentworth sees nothing but superiority in Robert Acton. He has a worldliness about him due to his travels in China, but he enjoys living in Boston, near Harvard, his alma mater. Robert visits Eugenia often, but avoids asking her about her marriage, since it is known that her husband wants to be rid of her. Eugenia, however, brings the subject up and tells him that it is all due to her husband’s brother, who wants Eugenia’s marriage to end so...
(The entire section is 1027 words.)
Chapters 7 and 8 Summary and Analysis
Felix, having finished the portrait of Gertrude, begins to paint the others in his new circle of acquaintances, at the price of a hundred dollars per painting. He eventually persuades Mr. Wentworth also to sit for a portrait, although he does not charge him for it. Mr. Wentworth is becoming more and more enthralled by his young nephew, in whom he sees a level of wisdom that almost causes him to look to the youth for advice. Felix admits that he does not take much seriously, and will most likely continue in this course, even after he returns to Europe, which he feels he will do soon. Felix says that he is, after all, a European, and Eugenia is even more so. Mr. Wentworth suggests that he settle down,...
(The entire section is 909 words.)
Chapters 9 and 10 Summary and Analysis
Robert Acton ruminates over his feelings for Eugenia: Is he in love, or is he merely curious? He worries that he does not feel more “ardent” if he is in love. Therefore he decides that he is simply curious about what she thinks and feels. He is also curious as to why a man would not be in love with such a woman. He leaves for Newport to be with a sick friend and spends the greater part of the time thinking about her. He would like to bring her to Newport, so that she can see more of New England than just the Boston area. When he returns home, he goes to see her, but she is not in the “big house,” as he calls the main residence of the Wentworths. Mr. Wentworth himself, however, is...
(The entire section is 1001 words.)
Chapters 11 and 12 Summary and Analysis
Eugenia comes to say good-bye to Mrs. Acton, Robert and Lizzie’s mother, who is an invalid and is slowly expiring. Mrs. Acton wishes that she would stay, at least for Robert’s sake, although they have all been happy in her presence. As Eugenia leaves, she decides to go into the Actons’ garden, where she encounters Robert. She tells him that she had been saying farewell to his mother, as she is now returning to Europe. Robert realizes at last that he is indeed in love with her, but he is not sure that he can trust her. He asks her again if she has signed and sent off the annulment papers as she said she had. She simply says, “Yes,” but he is unsure if she is being honest with him.
(The entire section is 999 words.)