Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3789
Henry James believed that an author must be granted his donnée, or central idea, and then be judged on the execution of his material. James’s stories are about members of high society. The characters do not engage in dramatic actions but spend much of their time in cryptic conversations, which slowly reveal the intense psychological strain under which they are laboring. James’s narrators are often confused individuals trying to puzzle out and evaluate themselves and the people around them. Romance is frequently at the center of James’s tales, but his lovers have difficulty coming to terms with their own feelings, and often love goes unrecognized and unfulfilled. Marriage is often rejected by his characters, and when it does appear, it is often the scene of heartaches and hidden resentments. Death and dying are also a part of James’s stories. Even though he focuses on the death of women and children, he avoids both the macabre and the sentimental. His stories can be divided into three categories: international romances, tales about writers and artists, and introspective narratives about wasted lives.
James has not been given the same recognition for his short fiction that Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe have received; yet James devoted much of his literary life to the creation of short fiction and made many attempts to master the form. Several times in his life he expressed the desire to give up writing novels and to devote himself solely to creating short fiction. For half a century, James employed himself in the writing of 112 pieces of short fiction, beginning with “A Tragedy of Error” in 1864 and ending with “The Round of Visits” in 1910. He began writing stories ten years before he published his first novel, and over his lifetime, his stories appeared in thirty-five different periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic.
James called his short fiction “tales,” and he divided his tales into types. The anecdote, which focuses on one character and one incident, is a brief, compact, and highly distilled story comparable to a sonnet. The longer nouvelle, which often ran between twenty thousand and forty-five thousand words, allowed James greater development in his short fiction, not for multiplying incidents but for probing the depths of a character’s experience. James expanded his stories because he wanted to explore the richness of human experience that lies hidden behind the surface of everyday life.
James’s major tales can be divided into three periods: His early stories focus on the international theme; during his middle years, his stories center on writers and artists; and his final stories focus on older characters who have gone through life but never really lived. James’s international stories focus on taking characters with set expectations and placing them in foreign environments. Daisy Miller is one of James’s early novelettes and deals with a young American girl who finds herself out of place in a European environment.
In Daisy Miller, young Frederick Winterbourne, an American living in Europe, becomes fascinated with the garrulous Daisy Miller, who is vacationing on the Continent. The free-spirited Daisy amiably flirts with Winterbourne. Although he is attracted to her, he is aware that she and her negligent mother are the source of gossip among European Americans, who are scandalized by the forward ways of the unchaperoned young American. After seeing Daisy in Vevey, he again meets her in Rome, where she is frequently seen with Giovanelli, who is thought to be an Italian adventurer. Ostracized by her American compatriots, she continues to be seen with Giovanelli and risks her life by spending a moonlit night with him at the Colosseum, where she contracts malaria and dies. The puzzled Winterbourne attends her funeral and realizes that she is innocent.
In Daisy Miller, James explores the dilemma of an innocent American woman who flouts the social codes of European society. More than that, however, he explores the mind of Winterbourne, a Europeanized American who tries to figure out whether Daisy is naïve or reckless. Like other Jamesean heroes, Winterbourne cannot commit himself to a woman with whom he is falling in love. Finding her attractive but shallow, he is compelled to lecture her on mores, and when he sees her at the Colosseum, he “cuts her dead.” Unable to break Winterbourne’s stiffness, she sends him a message from her deathbed, noting that she was fond of him. Convinced that he has been unjust to her, Winterbourne escapes into his studies and becomes entangled with a foreign woman.
James’s heroine, like Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, represents American innocence. Both have found themselves in a world order that puts them at risk, and both are sacrificed by those who should have helped them. In addition to introducing the international theme, Daisy Miller introduces two Jamesean types: the sacrificed woman and the egotist who rejects her love. Though James later rejected his subtitle A Study, the novelette Daisy Miller is a study of the complexity of human relationships. The enigmatic but vivacious Daisy is sacrificed at the Colosseum like the early Christians, while the reticent and regretful lover experiences a sense of loss as he retreats from the world of spontaneity and life.
“The Aspern Papers”
In “The Aspern Papers,” James takes the international theme beyond the romance and weaves a darker and more complex tale. In order to obtain the letters of the American poet Jeffrey Aspern, an unnamed American editor takes up residence with Aspern’s former mistress Juliana Bordereau and is willing to make love to her middle-aged niece, Miss Tita. He pays exorbitant rent for a room in their Venetian hideaway and spends lavishly to create a garden in their courtyard. Feeling that he is inspired by the mystic presence of Aspern and willing to take any measure to obtain the letters, he breaks into Juliana’s drawer and is caught. He retreats, and the dying Juliana hides the papers in her mattress. After Juliana dies, Miss Tita offers to give him the papers if he will marry her. He rejects her proposal only to reconsider it too late, after Miss Tita has burned the papers.
The unnamed narrator goes by an alias. Later, he reveals his name to Miss Tita but not to the reader. He is one version of the unidentifiable American hero who either shuffles names like James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking or assumes various identities like Melville’s heroes. He is a man without an identity, a parasite living on the reputation of a famous writer. He is also a typical American monomaniacal quester, fixed on an obsessive quest and willing to sacrifice all in pursuit of it. The narrator sees himself as part of a grandiose scheme; the garden that he plants becomes the symbol of a lost Eden. In Miss Tita, James again sets up woman as a sacrificial victim. Like other Jamesean heroes (and heroes from American literature in general), the narrator rejects marriage. Also, in his quest for knowledge, he is willing to sacrifice the private lives of Juliana and Aspern.
“The Real Thing”
In his next set of stories, which focus on artists and writers, James explores the relationship between life and art, and the conflict between the artist’s public and private life. In “The Real Thing,” James tells the story of an unnamed artist who hires two highly polished aristocrats forced to earn their living as models. Major Monarch and his wife contrast with the artist’s other models, Miss Churm, a feisty cockney, and Oronte, a low-life Italian. The artist discovers that his lower-class models can transform themselves into aristocrats, whereas the real aristocrats present either a static or a distorted picture of reality. He uses the Monarchs to create a set of illustrations upon which his future depends. An old friend tells him to get rid of the aristocrats because they are ruining his work and jeopardizing his career. The artist, however, respects and sympathizes with their plight but eventually has to dismiss them.
In “The Real Thing,” James explores not only the relationship between art and life but also the human dilemma of an artist faced with the conflict of saving his career or upholding his responsibility to two people with whom he sympathizes. The story is built on a series of finely balanced contrasts. The Monarchs are pure aristocrats. The artist thinks that they have come to sit for a portrait, but they have come to be hired as models. The Monarchs are aristocrats, yet they cannot model aristocrats, whereas Miss Churm and Oronte are commoners who can easily transform themselves into gentry. Ironically, the Englishwoman models for Italian types, while the Italian model does Englishmen. The servant-class models start out waiting on the Monarchs, but later the Monarchs wait on the servants. Thus, class distinctions are reversed. The artist wants to paint artistic portraits for which the aristocratic Monarchs are suitable, yet he devotes himself to commercial illustrations, using a working woman who can impersonate an empress. The aristocrats display themselves like slaves at an auction, whereas the servants do their job without auditioning. The lower-class models are professionals; the aristocrats are amateurs. The artist friend is supposedly a good judge of models, but he is a second-rate painter. The greatest irony of all is that people who have no sense of self can become transformed into commercial art, while people holding on to their identity, their own clothes, and their own manners become too photographic, too typical, and too much the real thing. Although the artist must rid himself of the two aristocrats, his experience with them has moved him more deeply than his work with the professional models. The story is a gem of balance and contrast that transforms an aesthetic dilemma into an ethical one and explores the relationship of art to life, servant to master, self to role, portraiture to illustration, and commercial art to lived experience. “The Real Thing” is an often-anthologized story and a perfect illustration of James’s craft in the anecdote or traditional short story.
“The Figure in the Carpet”
The theme of the relationship between art and life is broadened in James’s stories about writers. During his middle period, James created a series of stories in which a young would-be writer or critic surveys the life and work of a master writer. In “The Figure in the Carpet,” a story about an eccentric writer who has gained significant critical attention, James probes the nature of criticism itself. An unidentified critic trying to gain a name for himself is called upon to review The Middle, the latest novel of the famous author Hugh Vereker, because the lead critic, George Corvick, has to meet his fiancé, Gwendolen Erme. The narrator writes a glowing review of Vereker’s work, then attends a party in hope of seeing the great author. When a socialite presents Vereker with the narrator’s review, he calls it “the usual twaddle.” Vereker later apologizes to the critic but says that critics often misunderstand the obvious meaning, which stands out in his novels like a figure in a carpet. The critic probes Vereker for clues, but the author says that the clues run throughout his entire work. After searching for the secret meaning in Vereker’s work, the critic gives up the quest as a hoax. His fellow critic Corvick, however, uses the quest for the narrative secret as an excuse to work more closely with his fiancée, Gwendolen. Frustrated in their efforts, Corvick leaves the country. While away, he writes Gwendolen that he has figured out the secret, and he and Gwendolen get married. When Corvick dies, Gwendolen will not reveal the secret to the narrator, who is even willing to marry her to obtain it. Gwendolen does marry a mediocre critic, Drayton Deane. After the deaths of Gwendolen, Vereker, and Vereker’s wife, the narrator tries to obtain the secret from Deane, who knows nothing about it.
In “The Figure in the Carpet,” James again turns to the monomanical unnamed narrator on a quest for secret knowledge hidden in a text. Like the narrator of “The Aspern Papers,” the critic is willing to marry a woman to gain greater knowledge about an author’s work. James said that the story was about misunderstood authors and the need for more analytical criticism. Yet, the story sets up typical Jamesean paradoxes. Is Vereker being honest or is “the figure” merely a hoax on critics? Does Corvick really know the secret or is he using his knowledge to win Gwendolen? What is the puzzling connection between interpreting a work and exploring the intimate relationships between men and women? Why do the many so-called possessors of the secret die? This story has been cited as a model for the critical act by many modern critics. Its metafictional qualities and its strange mixture of love and death with the act of interpretation give it a distinctly postmodern quality.
The stories written in James’s later years take on a mystical tone. The artist is replaced by a sensitive individual who has alienated himself from the world. The characters are few and often focus on only two people. The characters remain obsessive, but now they are in pursuit of that part of themselves that haunts them. The Jamesean love story is played out into old age, with the woman as a patient bystander, a reflector of the man’s battle with himself. The image of the hunt found in Cooper, Melville, and Ernest Hemingway is now symbolic of an internal quest for the terrors hidden within the self. The artists, who in earlier stories sought to gain a second chance or find a next time, now become egocentric gentlemen facing the life that they could have had. The venture into the wilderness becomes a metaphor for the descent into the unconscious.
“The Altar of the Dead”
In “The Altar of the Dead,” George Stransom constantly memorializes the death of his bride, Mary Antrim, who died of a fever after their wedding day. Like a character from a Poe short story, he maintains an obsessive devotion to his dead love and is chained to the observance of the anniversary of his wife’s death. While remembering his wife, he meets his friend Paul Creston and Paul’s second wife. In a strange way, James returns to the international theme by making Creston’s new wife an American who has married for money. Stransom meditates on Creston’s first wife and idealizes her in her death. Later the same day, Stransom learns of the death of his boyhood friend, Acton Hague, a man who betrayed Stransom in some undisclosed manner. Hague becomes the only dead friend that Stransom rejects, as Stransom becomes more and more absorbed with the dead and creates an altar of candles to them. A mysterious woman becomes a fellow mourner at Stransom’s shrine. It takes him months to learn her name and years to find out her address. He finally comes to her apartment after the death of her aunt, only to find that her room is a personal shrine to Acton Hague, who rejected the woman. Since Stransom cannot light a candle for Hague, the relationship ends. The loss of the woman casts a shadow over his daily devotions at his altar. Dismayed, he has a vision of his dead wife, Mary, smiling at him from heaven. Just then, the mysterious woman returns to him as he dies in her arms. The last candle on the altar is lit not only for Acton Hague but also for Stransom.
Stransom has left the world of the living and has become obsessed with the dead. He forms a distant relationship with a fellow mourner, but she is only a part of his isolated world. Her feelings are never considered. Instead of forming a meaningful relationship, he continues to withdraw from human love. Stransom, like other heroes in James’s later tales, becomes an example of James’s reticent lover, a man who has rejected life and embraced death. The death of Stransom in the woman’s arms unites the love and death theme predominant in the later tales.
“The Beast in the Jungle”
“The Beast in the Jungle” is a powerful story about one man’s quest for his illusive identity. John Marcher meets May Bartram when they are both in their thirties. Ten years earlier, Marcher revealed to her that he was singled out for a terrible fate. When Marcher recalls that he told her about his premonition, they form a relationship, and May begins to wait with him. Blindly, he rules out love as the strange fate that awaits him and forms a friendship with May, taking her to operas, giving her gifts, and spending hours talking about his fate. As the years pass, he becomes skeptical that the “beast” will ever come. He feels reluctant to take May along with him on a “tiger hunt.” Finally, May becomes ill. She knows his fate but will not tell him because she wants to make him a man like any other. He realizes that he might save her, but he is too preoccupied with his own destiny to become involved with her. She eventually tells him that his fate has already passed him by and that he never recognized it. When she dies, he contemplates that her death might be the terrible fate, but he rules out this premise. Marcher, an outsider at May’s funeral, eventually goes abroad only to return to the grave of his friend to see another mourner stricken with grief. Suddenly, the beast leaps out at Marcher, as he realizes that he has failed to love and has been unable to feel deeply about anything. He has been an empty man who has watched his life from the outside but has failed to live it.
Marcher, like Stransom, is held prisoner to an obsession that removes him from the world of human relationships. He cannot give himself to another, so he must await his fate. James called the story a negative adventure. Indeed, Marcher’s trek into the wilderness is his own confrontation with his unconscious fears. In his monomaniacal obsession, he sacrifices May, who becomes dedicated to waiting for him to discover his fate, while he prides himself on his disinterestedness. In “The Beast in the Jungle,” as in other James stories, the woman becomes useful to the man as a siphon for his own obsessions. Marcher fails to recognize and accept love and wastes his life by projecting all his endeavors onto a nebulous future. He is so wrapped up in his own ego that he fails to believe that the death of a lifelong friend is a terrible fate. In the end, he is brought into the world of the dead. Like Stransom, he has lived outside the present and now has only a lost past on which to look back. Like Winterbourne at the funeral of Daisy Miller, he begins to realize what the woman has meant to him. The cemetery where he stands is compared to a garden, which can be seen as an Eden, where Marcher realizes his own ignorance and comes to a painful awareness of his loss of paradise. The cemetery is also called a wilderness, a wilderness that will take him beyond the settled life and into the terrible recesses of his own heart. Marcher is a version of the American future-oriented pioneer unattached to family and loved ones, an Emersonian hero caught in the void of his own solipsistic world. He also becomes one of the first modern antiheroes, inauthentic men who live outside themselves, men to whom nothing really happens.
“The Jolly Corner”
Stransom becomes absorbed in the past, in the world of the dead, and he neglects to establish a relationship with the woman who mourns with him. Marcher becomes involved in a vacuous destiny, unable to see the love that surrounds him. In “The Jolly Corner,” Spencer Brydon, another alienated man who rejects the present, pursues his obsession with a past that might have been. Having lived abroad, Brydon returns to New York after a thirty-three-year absence only to find that the world has changed around him. James again explores what happens to an individual who finds himself in an alien culture. When Brydon comes to settle some property that he owns in the United States, he begins to wonder about his talents as a businessman and contemplates the kind of man he might have been had he stayed in the United States. He eventually develops a morbid obsession with his alter ego, the other self that he might have been. One night, Brydon enters the empty house called the Jolly Corner in search of his Doppelgänger. When he finally comes face to face with it, he faints at the monstrous sight. Upon recovery, he finds himself in the lap of Alice Staverton, who reassures him that she does not find his shadow self so horrible. In the end, he rejoices that he has gained knowledge about himself.
Spencer Brydon’s return to the United States plays an ironic twist on James’s international theme, as a Europeanized American returns to a United States that he feels alienated from and then conjures up an American self that horrifies him. Like Marcher, Brydon finds himself on a hunt stalking his secret self, his fate that might have been. Again, James uses the image of the hunt to symbolize an internal journey into the subconscious mind. As the doors of life’s options open and close around Brydon in the haunted house of his lost youth, the monster leaps out at him as it did at Marcher. Both men, like Stransom, collapse upon the women they have neglected. Alice Staverton is the woman who waited and shared his destiny, the way that May Bartram did Marcher’s. She not only knew his double but also accepted it. The use of the double figure was popular in romantic and gothic literature, but in “The Jolly Corner,” James gave a deeper psychological and philosophical undertone to the motif. In his last group of stories, James used the mystery adventure format to probe the inner psyche of his characters and to examine characters obsessed with living life outside the present.
James brought a greater psychological realism to the genre of short fiction, expanded its length in order to encompass an in-depth range of inner experiences, transformed the mystery story into metafictional narratives that have a distinctly postmodern quality, and reshaped the quest motif of American literature into existential probings about authenticating one’s identity.