Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Throughout his career Henry James was obsessed with the American experience of Europe; his aptly named short story “Europe” is one of many of his works that take this subject as its major theme. For James, the American response to the social and cultural milieu of Europe is a complex one that usually functions to effect irrevocable changes in the Americans who choose to experience this kind of transformation. To James, Europe often represents a world of greater sophistication, deception, and subtlety for Americans who venture to enter its complex, ambiguous web of social relationships. His characters are generally unprepared for the multilayered reality that they encounter in a European setting.

In “Europe,” however, James concentrates on characters who remain in the United States, although Europe still functions symbolically in ways similar to his other fiction. The Rimmle daughters clearly represent what James sees as the major American virtues and defects. They are naïve, puritanical, provincial, and painfully sincere, and, with the exception of Jane, are destined to retain these characteristics because they are denied access to European experience. Jane, on the other hand, reveals her readiness for a personal metamorphosis when she departs hurriedly for Europe and then refuses to return. Rumors of her flirtatiousness and willfulness signal the new freedom from constricting American mores that Europe confers on her, and the narrator’s...

(The entire section is 491 words.)