Henry James Analysis

Discussion Topics

Henry James was not fond of humorous fiction. Is there any humor in his writing? If so, how does it function?

Identify and comment on the effect of the ambiguities in The Turn of the Screw.

Does James succeed equally well in characterizing men and women?

Contrast the motives and accomplishments of James’s Americans abroad in his earlier and later novels respectively.

Was James wise to rewrite some of his earlier novels in his later and more complex style when preparing the New York Edition of his works?

Henry James’s brother William became an important psychologist. Should Henry have become a psychologist?

Does the resourcefulness of James’s female protagonists allow them to succeed in their endeavors?

Other Literary Forms

ph_0111201229-James.jpg Henry James. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Henry James was a prolific writer who, from 1875 until his death, published a book or more every year. Other than short fiction, James wrote novels, dramas, biographies, autobiographies, reviews, travelogues, art and literary criticism, literary theory, and letters. James was a pioneer in the criticism and theory of fiction. Much of his criticism appears in Leon Edel and Mark Wilson’s edition of Henry James: Literary Criticism (1984). James’s creative method and the sources of many of his works are documented in The Complete Notebooks of Henry James (1987).


Henry James contributed to the development of the modernist novel, invented cryptic tales that border on the postmodern, and laid the groundwork for the contemporary theory of narrative. He completed twenty novels (two uncompleted novels were published posthumously). He also wrote 112 short stories, 7 travel books, 3 autobiographies, numerous plays, 2 critical biographies, and voluminous works of criticism. James brought the American novel to its fruition and gave it an international flavor. He transformed the novel of physical adventure to one of psychological intrigue. His character studies are probing and intense. His precise use of limited point of view invites the reader to become actively engaged in interpreting events and ferreting out meaning. His works also achieve a masterful blend of summarized action and dramatic scenes. In his short fiction, he created the forerunners of the modern antiheroes and invented metafictional stories about the nature of art and writing. Also, his critical works and many prefaces have given modern critics a vocabulary for discussing character and point of view. James edited a deluxe edition of his complete works, received honorary degrees from Harvard University and the University of Oxford, and was awarded the Order of Merit from King George V. His works have influenced Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Graham Greene.

Other literary forms

Fiction was assuredly where Henry James’s essential talent and interest lay, and it was the form to which he devoted almost all of his literary efforts. His more than twenty novels (the count is inexact because some of his middle-length pieces, such as The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller, can be categorized as novellas) and roughly 112 tales attest his lifetime of dedication to this genre. Despite this clear emphasis on fiction, however, James was seduced by his desire to regain his lost popularity with the general public and his wish to attempt a kind of writing that he had studied for many years, writing drama.

For a five-year period, from 1890 to 1895, James concentrated on playwriting; during this time he wrote no novels but continued to publish short stories. While his failure to gain a public with his plays somewhat embittered James (an emotion that has been exaggerated by some biographers; he always had loyal and appreciative readers and friends), he never lost confidence in the legitimacy of his art, and he returned to fiction with what many scholars believe to be a stronger, more ambitious inspiration, resulting in what has been called the “major phase” of his writing. It is perhaps indicative of the primacy of fiction in James’s career that his most successful play was The American (pr. 1891), an adaptation of his earlier novel.

Unlike many creative writers, James produced an enormous volume of...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Henry James was the first American novelist to bring to the form a sense of artistic vocation comparable to Flaubert. Except for the wide popularity of Daisy Miller, which appealed to audiences both in Europe and in the United States, no work of James achieved a wide readership in his lifetime. This fact, though it caused him pain, did not impel this most discriminating of writers to lower his standards in order to appeal to a mass audience. Those who did appreciate his work tended to be the better educated, more sophisticated readers, though even some of these occasionally had blind spots concerning James’s novels—his brother, William, for example, once wrote to James that his fiction was “bloodless.” Except for the disastrous essay into drama, James adhered to his principles, always convinced that what he was doing would improve the quality of the novel and even raise the standards of conscientious readers. Events after his death have proved him right.

With the growth of courses of study in modern American literature, James earned the wide readership that was denied him during his lifetime, and after World War II, critical studies and biographical works devoted to him proliferated in staggering numbers. This is not to say that James is without his critics. He has frequently been criticized for a lack of scope and feeling, for concentrating his formidable talents on the psychological maneuvering of the privileged few. His later style has often been judged impenetrable, grotesquely mannered—though some critics regard his late novels as the highest achievements of the novelist’s art, unsurpassed before or since.

As to James’s influence on the subsequent course of the novel, however, there can be no question. He refined the novelistic art, purified it, and gave it directions never thought of before his time. Four areas of emphasis have especially attracted scholars in their attempts to isolate the essential contributions to the art of fiction with which James can be credited: point of view, psychological realism, style, and the connection of moral and aesthetic values.

Throughout his career, James experimented with the varieties of consciousness (the word can be found everywhere in his fiction and criticism) through which stories can be told. The completely objective point of view, in which the reader is presented solely with what anyone present would see and hear, and the first-person point of view, in which a character tells the story as he or she perceives it, were both traditional, and James used them frequently. As his writing became more complex and dense, however, he endeavored to relate the action more in terms of what goes on in people’s minds, the most impressive example of such a “center of consciousness” being...

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Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Henry James was a prolific writer, most lauded for his fiction. His best-known novels, on the intersection of American and European manners and morals, include The American (1876-1877), The Europeans (1878), Daisy Miller (1878), The Portrait of a Lady (1880-1881), The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). He combined his study of mannered society with an evaluation of social and political justice in The Bostonians (1885-1886) and The Princess Casamassima (1885-1886). In The Tragic Muse (1889-1890), he produced his one novel about the theater. James also wrote more than one hundred short stories and tales (now collected in Leon Edel’s twelve-volume The Complete Tales of Henry James, 1962-1964). James was a perceptive critic of his own fiction as well as that of others. His study The Art of Fiction (1884) is a seminal work of its kind. He prefaced many of his novels with long discussions of fiction writing (collected by R. P. Blackmur in The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, 1934) and wrote essays on other fiction writers, both contemporaries and predecessors, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne (Hawthorne, 1879), Honoré de Balzac, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ivan Turgenev, and Charles Dickens. He also wrote theater reviews and essays on playwrights from William Shakespeare to Henrik Ibsen, which are collected in The Scenic Art (1948; Allan Wade, editor). James was a major travel writer of his day, contributing his essays on England and Europe to American publications such as The Nation, Atlantic Monthly and the New York Tribune. After a return visit to the United States, he wrote The American Scene (1907), a reflection on American life. He wrote a biography of his sculptor friend, William Wetmore Story and His Friends (1903), and completed two volumes of memoirs, A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914). An edition of his letters has been edited by Leon Edel (Henry James Letters, 1974-1984).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Henry James’s novels detail the complexities of human relationships. His exploration of consciousness and of narrative viewpoints led, in his more mature works, to the psychological realism for which his novels are chiefly remembered. James’s reputation as a dramatist never equaled his reputation as a novelist. James saw five of his plays professionally produced and five others published, but of his fifteen completed plays, none was both produced and published during his lifetime. Most of James’s plays became a part of English dramatic literature only in 1949, some thirty-three years after James’s death, when they were collected by Leon Edel in The Complete Plays of Henry James. Consequently, James’s importance...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Anesko, Michael. “Friction with the Market”: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. A thoughtful and well-researched specialized study. Covers with great skill the social and economic aspects of James’s career as a novelist, essayist, dramatist, and critic. Erudite but still quite useful for the general reader.

Bailie, Ronnie. The Fantastic Anatomist: A Psychoanalytic Study of Henry James. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 2000. A look at James and his works from the psychological perspective. Bibliography and index.

Bell, Millicent. “‘The Pupil’ and the...

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