The Aspern Papers Style and Technique

Henry James

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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.