Foreign Affairs Themes
by Alison Lurie

Start Your Free Trial

Download Foreign Affairs Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

One of the major themes in the novel is that of appearance versus reality. Nothing is as it appears to be on first impression. Stereotypes such as the brash American cowboy or the refined English lady of Tallyho Castle are interrogated and shown to be comfortable prejudices that will eventually be exposed as false. Appearances can also conceal darker psychological realities. The first impressions of Fred as an amiable young lover and of Vinnie as a cultured American academic do not reveal the level of self-involvement that subverts each character’s capacity for true intimacy.

Another important theme in Foreign Affairs is the Jamesian comparison of the European and the American character. Henry James’s astute exploration of the American in Europe, especially the “Europeanized” American, is brought up to date through the characters of Fred and Vinnie. Although nominally American, both are eager to take their places in the upper echelons of a socially stratified English world.

Chuck, on the other hand, is a less calculating American whose core of goodness and sweetness is a breath of fresh air in a more jaded and cynical old world. He also leads Vinnie to see that she is a good woman, as he is, at heart, a good man. Similarly, although the American Fred is callow and selfish, he does in the end maintain moral principles that contrast with the lax morality of the British smart set, whom he comes to see as only temporary friends.

Finally, Lurie exposes the reality of England underneath the expectations of American tourists. As Fred is disillusioned with Rosemary, Vinnie experiences a rude awakening when searching for English children to provide her with nursery rhymes for her next book. Instead of listening to charming ditties, Vinnie must pay to listen to obscene doggerel by an underfed ragamuffin with a dirty face, chipped teeth, and matted, artificially pink hair. In addition to having her illusions about merry England shattered, Vinnie loses her idealized image of childhood as an innocent preserve. This theme of the reality of children is reinforced by the minor character of the American child Jakie, depicted as a disagreeable imp who has deceived his blindly permissive parents as to his true nature.


(Novels for Students)

Appearance and Reality

Both of the main protagonists, Vinnie and Fred, are initially deceived by outward appearances. Vinnie eventually learns not to judge by appearances, and Fred learns to value what he already has. Vinnie's personal growth is probably the more interesting of the two, because when she is compared to Fred—a plain, unmarried woman in her fifties, as opposed to a tall, dark, handsome young man—the odds seem so much stacked against her. Because Vinnie is an intellectual and professor of English, her expectations of life have been scripted by books. Since she was a little child, classic English fiction has "suggested to her what she might do, think, feel, desire, and become." Sadly, the older woman does not fare well in traditional English novels. As Vinnie notes, people over fifty "are usually portrayed as comic, pathetic, or disagreeable." Nothing exciting ever happens to them. True to form, Vinnie does not expect to find love at her age. After all, she believes that she has never really been loved by a man, so why should that change now? She also realizes that contemporary culture reinforces this belief. As portrayed in the media, only the young have sex. That older people might also have satisfying, even passionate sexual relationships is passed over in embarrassed silence. Vinnie is quite prepared to accept this situation, telling herself that even though she still has erotic impulses, it is time "to steer past … elderly sexual farce and sexual tragedy into the wide, calm sunset sea of abstinence."

When Vinnie first meets Chuck, she cannot see beyond the surface of the man. She thinks of him as a cartoon American tourist who wears a cowboy costume and is loaded up with cameras, maps, and tour guides. He appears...

(The entire section is 1,329 words.)