Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

James was a notable theoretician of fictional technique, particularly of so-called narrative point of view. Taking his cue from the “free indirect style” inaugurated by Gustave Flaubert, James stipulated again and again that the adoption of a limited point of view in which the narrator was privy to the innermost thoughts of a single character but more or less deprived, except from the evidence of conversation and gestures, of any information about the thoughts and feelings of other characters was the key to realistic and aesthetically powerful narrative. “The Altar of the Dead” adopts exclusively the point of view of Stransom, whose speculations, emotions, and intuitions are all made entirely lucid for the reader, at the same time that he acts as what James often called the “reflector” of the deeds and the possible thoughts of the other principal character. Her remaining unnamed throughout the story is possibly mannered, but it does reinforce the point that for the reader she is never fully embodied but remains an object of attention only insofar as she is of interest to and helps to illuminate the character of Stransom.

The adoption of limited omniscience serves other purposes in the tale as well, and James characteristically practices his craft with consummate skill. The entire narrative turns, in one sense, on the meaning of the character of Acton Hague, who is both the bond and the barrier between Stransom and the young lady. Given Stransom’s...

(The entire section is 605 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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