Henry James James, Henry (1843 - 1916) - Essay


(Gothic Literature)

Henry James (1843 - 1916)

American novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, critic, biographer, autobiographer, and playwright.

James is considered one of the great novelists in the English language and the writer at the forefront of the movement toward more realism in literature. By enlarging the scope of the novel, introducing dramatic elements to the narrative tale, using highly self-conscious narrators, and refining the point-of-view technique to a new level of sophistication, he advanced the art of fiction. He also probed a number of social and psychological concerns, such as the artist's role in society, the need for both the aesthetic and moral life, and the benefits of a developed consciousness receptive to the thoughts and feelings of others. Psychological and social questions pervade James's small body of supernatural fiction as well, which uses hauntedness and horror to offer insights into the conscious self and the truth that lies within the human soul. James's best-known Gothic works are the novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) and the ghost stories that he wrote over the course of his long career, notably "The Ghostly Rental" (1876) and "The Jolly Corner" (1908). Absent from these works are the typical Gothic conventions found in other works of the genre, as James concentrates on the internal rather than the external conditions of his fictional subjects. The psychological ghost story is taken to new heights as it focuses not on external specters but on the perceiving consciousness. In James's fiction, Gothic elements are used in the service of realism and psychology to emphasize the impenetrable depths of human emotion and to highlight the strange and often frightening nature of the human mind.


James was born in New York City, the second son of well-to-do, liberal parents. Because of his grandfather's enormous wealth, a fortune he divided equally among his children, James's father never had to work for his income. Henry James, Sr. was an intellectual man of his day: a devotee of the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and an occasional theorist on religion and philosophy. He sometimes had hallucinations that he regarded as religious experiences, and as he was growing up James witnessed his father's strange behavior during such episodes. James's mother had a more practical bent, a quality she was forced to develop in order to compensate for her husband's erratic conduct. James himself was a shy, bookish boy who assumed the role of a quiet observer beside his active elder brother William, who later became the founder of psychological study in America and the prominent philosopher of pragmatism. Both Henry and William spent much of their youth traveling between the United States and Europe. They were schooled by tutors and governesses in such diverse environments as Manhattan, Geneva, Paris, and London. Both developed a skill in foreign languages and an awareness of Europe rare among Americans in their time.

At the age of nineteen James enrolled at Harvard Law School, briefly entertaining thoughts of a professional career. However, this ambition soon changed and he began devoting his study time to reading literature, particularly the works of Honoré de Balzac and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Inspired by the literary atmosphere of Cambridge and Boston, James wrote his first fiction and criticism, his earliest works appearing in the Continental Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly, and The North American Review. From the beginning of his career James wrote supernatural stories, inspired by his love for the work of Hawthorne; his first two unearthly stories, "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" (1868) and "De Grey: A Romance" (1868) clearly show Hawthorne's influence.

In the 1860s James met and formed lifelong friendships with William Dean Howells—then assistant editor at The Atlantic—Charles Eliot Norton, and James Russell Lowell. Howells was to become James's editor and literary agent, and together the two could be said to have inaugurated the era of realism in American literature. In 1869 James went abroad for his first adult encounter with Europe. While in London he was taken by the Nortons to meet some of England's greatest writers, including George Eliot, John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The year 1869 also marked the death of James's beloved cousin Minny Temple, for whom he had formed a deep emotional attachment. This shock, and the intensity of his experiences in Europe, provided much of the material that would figure in such later works as The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Wings of the Dove (1902).

James returned to the United States in 1870 determined to discover whether he could live and write in his native country. He continued to write stories and began work on his first novel, Watch and Ward (unpublished until 1878). However, after a winter of unremitting hackwork in New York, James became convinced that he could write better and live more cheaply abroad. In 1875 he moved permanently to Europe, settling first in Rome, then in Paris, and eventually in London, where he found the people and conditions best suited to his imagination. He wrote stories and wasted no time in producing the early novels which would establish his reputation—Roderick Hudson (1876), The American (1877), and The Europeans (1878). While in Paris, James was admitted into the renowned circle of Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet, and Ivan Turgenev. He greatly admired the French writers, but felt closest to Turgenev, who confirmed his own view that a novelist need not worry about "story," but should focus exclusively on character. Though James earned recognition with his first European novels, it was not until the publications of Daisy Miller (1879) and The Portrait of a Lady that he gained popular success. The latter marked the end of what critics consider the first period in his career. Throughout the following decades and into the twentieth century he progressed toward more complex effects in his novels and stories. Because of his experiments he eventually lost the popularity that he had achieved with Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady. Many critics suggest that it was this growing neglect by the public which induced him to try his hand as a playwright. However, after several attempts at drama—most notably his dramatization of The American (1891) and his new productions, Guy Domville (1895) and The High Bid (1908), all of which failed at the box office—James gave up the theater.

The years 1898 to 1904 were the most productive of James's literary career. During this period he published several volumes of stories, his ghostly novella The Turn of the Screw, and the consummate novels of his late maturity—The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). After 1904 James's health and creativity began to decline. Though he still produced a sizeable amount of work, consisting mainly of his autobiographies, essays, and criticism, he finished only one novel, The Outcry (1911). With the outbreak of World War I, James became particularly distressed. He devoted much of his remaining energy to serving the Allied cause, and when the United States did not immediately back the Allies he assumed British citizenship in protest against his native land. On his deathbed the following year he received the British Order of Merit.


James's reputation rests primarily on his novels, the best of which are acknowledged to be the "international" novels and those depicting the American character, including Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians (1886), Washington Square (1881) and The Golden Bowl. James's ghost stories are less well known, but they continue to be read and admired. Written over the course of his career, they reveal how the author's interests and craftsmanship developed. The early stories "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" and "De Grey: A Romance," for example, explore the Hawthornian themes of pride, envy, and guilt as well as the "presentness of the past," but without the psychological complexity of Hawthorne's short fiction. But then in the lurid 1876 tale "The Ghostly Rental," centered around a haunted house, James leaves the reader to judge the authenticity of ghosts, supplying just enough psychological detail to make the characters' supernatural experiences genuinely convincing but the reality of the ghosts equally problematic.

The "reality" of the ghostly experience is further complicated in "Sir Edmund Orme" (1891). The story is framed by an unidentified speaker who claims that he came into "possession" of this manuscript—narrated in the first person—after the death of the narrator's wife, "whom I take," the speaker conjectures, "to have been one of the persons referred to. There is nothing in the strange story to establish this point." The uncertainty as to how the reader should take the story is further emphasized when the speaker cautions that the manuscript may not be a "report of a real occurrence." The reader's incredulity is matched by the speaker's skepticism. In less than a paragraph, James establishes a sense of verisimilitude and gently leads the reader into a willing suspension of disbelief. In "The Private Life" (1892) there is no question as to the reality of the supernatural—at least as far as the main characters are concerned—but the story is more amusing than terrifying, both for the characters who experience the strange phenomena and for the reader who is privy to their adventure. James based his story and the character of Clare Vawdrey on the great Victorian poet Robert Browning. Observing him socially, James found Browning "loud" and aggressive but mundane, even banal. Yet James acknowledged his greatness as a poet. This story playfully explores the contradiction. "Owen Wingrave" (1892) is a more somber effort. Trained as a soldier, young Owen Wingrave challenges the family military tradition and leaves school. Shocked, his tutor, his friends, and his family accuse him of selfishness and cowardice, and put enormous pressure on him to continue in the military. All of the characters—including Owen's teacher—meet for a weekend in one of the family's homes, one room of which is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Owen's ancestor Colonel Wingrave, who had killed one of his sons. To prove that he is not a coward, Owen accepts a dare to spend the night in the room, and the next day is found dead. The circumstances of both his ancestor's and Owen's death suggest a supernatural explanation, but the horror is not in the account of Owen's death but in the portrait of the family that pressures Owen and leads him to this desperate act.

The Turn of the Screw is by common consent James's best tale of supernatural horror. It is framed with a speaker, Douglas, who produces a manuscript by a governess who had been infatuated with her employer. Her manuscript describes how she is confronted by a pair of ghosts that she suspects is corrupting the two young children in her charge. The apparitions are those of Peter Quint, a man formerly employed in the household, and Miss Jessel, the previous governess. As her suspicions deepen, the new governess confronts each of the children concerning their collusion with the ghosts; during each confrontation, one of the specters appears to the governess, bringing the action to a crisis. The girl, Flora, denies having seen the wraiths and, apparently hysterical, is sent to her uncle in London. The boy, Miles, dies in the governess's arms during the culmination of a psychic battle between the governess and the ghost of Peter Quint. In this story James once again leaves the nature and "reality" of the supernatural a mystery, and the story has been read variously as a horrifying ghost story and a penetrating psychological study of an emotionally unstable woman whose visions of ghosts are mere hallucinations.

"The Jolly Corner" is James's last and one of his best stories involving the supernatural. Its hero, Spencer Brydon, returns to New York after a thirty-year absence to visit his boyhood home (the house on the jolly corner). Obsessed by a desire to know what he might have become had he remained in New York, Brydon visits the house several times and senses "presences," which he interprets to be members of his family, now dead, and their history. Brydon is so frightened that he faints. When he awakens, his head is in the lap of a woman friend, who has also seen this ghost. While not as ambiguous as The Turn of the Screw—Brydon's friend confirms the existence of the ghost—the story is similarly powerful as a study of one's search for personal identity, as the protagonist gains insight into himself by his comparison with his "other self." Moreover, the core idea, the consequences of his choices, is the basis of art itself. It is the exploration through the imagina-tion of the possibilities of human action, a theme that has universal appeal.


James achieved commercial and critical success during his lifetime. However, because of the subject matter of his works—their lack of social and political concerns and emphasis on high society—his reputation suffered after World War I, only to be revived again in the 1940s. By the 1960s most critics realized the depth of James's fiction, and since then he has been acknowledged as a master of the novel. Although James is not thought of primarily as a Gothic writer, some critics regard The Turn of the Screw as perhaps the world's finest ghost story, and the most satisfyingly ambivalent and provocative piece of fiction James ever wrote. Because of the work's relative accessibility and popularity compared to much of James's other work, the novella is often read as an introduction to James. A critical debate has raged since the 1930s as to the exact nature of the piece. Is it a ghost story or a psychological study of an unstable woman? Like James's ghost stories, the novella is admired not only for its ability to horrify but because it presents so realistically the ambiguity inherent in questions of the occult and supernatural. Critics writing about the Gothic elements in James's fiction have discussed his ghost stories as aesthetic experiments in which the author tries to come to terms with questions about consciousness that he explores more fully in other works; the use of the supernatural to investigate complex questions about human psychology; and the ghosts in the works as representations or manifestations of the human psyche.

Principal Works

(Gothic Literature)

A Passionate Pilgrim, and Other Tales (short stories) 1875
Roderick Hudson (novel) 1876
The American (novel) 1877
The Europeans (novel) 1878
French Poets and Novelists (criticism) 1878
Watch and Ward (novel) 1878
Daisy Miller (novel) 1879
Hawthorne (criticism) 1879
The Madonna of the Future, and Other Tales (short stories) 1879
Confidence (novel) 1880
The Portrait of a Lady (novel) 1881
Washington Square (novel) 1881
Daisy Miller [first publication; adaptation of the novel] (play) 1883
The Siege of London. Madame de Mauves (novellas) 1883
A Little Tour in...

(The entire section is 349 words.)

Primary Sources

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: James, Henry. "The Romance of Some Old Cloths." In Great Ghost Stories: 34 Classic Tales of the Supernatural, compiled by Robin Brockman, pp. 167-85. New York: Gramercy Books, 2002.

The following excerpt is from a short story originally published February 1868 as "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" in the Atlantic Monthly.

The marriage was to all appearance a happy one, and each party obtained what each had desired—Lloyd 'a devilish fine woman', and Rosalind—but Rosalind's desires, as the reader will have observed, had remained a good deal of a mystery. There were, indeed, two blots upon their felicity, but time...

(The entire section is 1367 words.)

General Commentary

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: Thorberg, Raymond. "Terror Made Relevant: James's Ghost Stories." Dalhousie Review 47, no. 2 (summer 1967): 185-91.

In the following essay, Thorberg considers James's approach to writing ghost stories as an aesthetic, artistic experiment.

Henry James experimented with what he called the "ghost-story", though with the apology of quotation marks, early in his career; and then after a hiatus of a decade and a half returned to active contribution to the genre through the 1890s and into the new century. This later phase or period divides also, with a number of stories of lesser merit like those of his earlier career dating...

(The entire section is 2990 words.)

Title Commentary

(Gothic Literature)

"The Jolly Corner"


SOURCE: Shelden, Pamela Jacobs. "Jamesian Gothicism: The Haunted Castle of the Mind." Studies in the Literary Imagination 7, no. 1 (spring 1974): 121-34.

In the following essay, Shelden considers James's use of Gothic conventions, centering on his use of the doppelgänger, or double, and other Gothic devices in "The Jolly Corner."


Many critics consider [Charles] Brockden Brown, [Edgar Allan] Poe, and [Nathaniel] Hawthorne the American heirs of the Gothic tradition in...

(The entire section is 6660 words.)

Further Reading

(Gothic Literature)


Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. New York: Harper Collins, 1985, 740 p.

Abridged version of Edel's five volume comprehensive biography of James's life; revised with additional source material.


Akiyama, Masayuki. "James and Nanboku: A Comparative Study of Supernatural Stories in the West and East." Comparative Literature Studies 22 (1985): 43-52.

Explores parallels between the Kabuki dramas of Nanboku and James's short fiction, especially East and West variations on the "revenge-beyond-the-grave" motif.


(The entire section is 1105 words.)