Henry James

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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?

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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).


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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.

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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...

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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 wasThe American (pr. 1891), an adaptation of his earlier novel.

Unlike many creative writers, James produced an enormous volume of critical writings, chiefly literary, in which he not only studied the works of other authors (the most noteworthy are Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ivan Turgenev, Gustave Flaubert, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, Honoré de Balzac, and Guy de Maupassant) but also performed a detailed analysis of his own work. This latter effort appears primarily in the form of the prefaces to the New York edition (1907-1909) of his novels and tales. Inasmuch as the New York edition occupies twenty-six volumes, these prefaces provide a considerable body of critical material that has proved to be of great value to James scholars. His often reprinted essay “The Art of Fiction” (1884) presents his general theories on the art. Aside from his literary criticism, James wrote numerous studies and critiques on other subjects, such as painting (which greatly interested him) and travel.

In the late twentieth century, James’s books and travel sketches attained critical admiration for their graceful style and penetrating insight into times that have gone and places that will never be the same. As might be expected, his studies of Italy, France, and England (the countries that most intrigued him) are detailed and entertaining. More surprising is his finest work in this genre, The American Scene (1907), the fruit of a long visit to the United States; he toured the country extensively, in part to visit friends and places that he had not seen and others that he had not been to for a long time, and in part to deliver lectures on literary topics. His account of the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century fuses the poignance of a native’s return with the distance and objectivity of a European perspective.


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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 Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors. As Percy Lubbock noted as early as 1921 in The Craft of Fiction, James achieves in The Ambassadors a point of view remarkable for its appropriateness to the story told and astounding in its focus on Strether’s consciousness, which is made possible by James’s using the third-person limited point of view but relating the hero’s thoughts and feelings in a way that he himself could never manage—in short, the reader sees Strether’s perceptions both from the inside and from the outside, with James gently guiding attention to the more important features of Strether’s cognition. This sort of advanced work in viewpoint did two important things: It helped to prepare the way for the stream-of-consciousness novel, and it deepened the psychological realism that was to be James’s chief intellectual contribution to the novel form.

Realism was in the literary air when James was starting out as a writer, but he focused his attention on fidelity to the movements of consciousness in a way that no previous writer had done. In a James novel, what is most significant is not what transpires in the plot, per se, but rather the attitudes and emotions and discoveries that unfold in the consciousness of each individual character. Even in a work in the objective mode, such as The Awkward Age, which consists almost entirely of dialogue, what interests the attentive reader is the tides of feeling and realization that are implied by the speech. James appreciated the realistic aspects of the novels of Stendhal, Balzac, and Flaubert, but he resisted the naturalistic emphasis on the scientific and empirical—he believedÉmile Zola to be misguided and unliterary. Indeed, James became a necessary counterfoil to this powerful literary movement in the later years of the nineteenth century.

As a stylist, James introduced the scrupulous craftsmanship of Flaubert to English-language readers. Like Flaubert, he weighed every phrase, every nuance of diction and rhythm, every comma. Indeed, for James, style was a moral imperative. Joseph Conrad, a great admirer of James (the feeling was reciprocated, but with less enthusiasm), once asserted that the American writer was “the historian of fine consciences.” Certainly, no one who reads James closely could fail to note the delicate but constant attention paid to right and wrong in the novels. What might escape detection, however, is that James evidently believed that ethics are, in somewhat intricate ways, related to aesthetics. This does not mean that all the “good” characters are beautiful and the evil ones ugly. On the contrary, in many instances, physically attractive characters such as Christina Light (in Roderick Hudson) and Kate Croy (in The Wings of the Dove) are sources of much wickedness (such characters also are usually very charming); while less prepossessing ones, such as Madame Grandoni (in The Princess Casamassima) and Henrietta Stackpole (in The Portrait of a Lady), appear to represent the forces of virtue.

The true relationship between beauty and morality in James rests on his evident conviction that those elements of life that are positive and benevolent, such as freedom and personal development, have within them great beauty—and James takes considerable pains to express these qualities fully and with impressive aesthetic form. The appreciation of Fleda Vetch, in The Spoils of Poynton, for the beautiful appurtenances and objets d’art of the country house in the title constitutes, to some degree, a basis for the acts of renunciation and self-effacement that provide evidence of her virtue. Ever determined not to oversimplify, James offers such concatenations cautiously. This most subtle of moralists was equally understated in his presentation of beauty, revealing the ways in which it can conceal evil as well as the ways in which it can enrich life and give it greater meaning. After reading James, one cannot doubt the sincerity of his avowal, in his 1915 letter to H. G. Wells, that “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”

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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).


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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 as a playwright stems neither from influential productions nor from timely publications. He is a minor but unique figure in English-language drama, valuable for his ability to treat common turn-of-the-century dramatic themes and forms in an uncommon way. Although he borrowed liberally from the French well-made drama he admired, his plays are best understood as English comedies of manners. James took the British stage tradition of William Congreve, William Wycherley, Sir George Etherege, Oliver Goldsmith, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, refined its upper-class milieu, and in doing so clarified the comedy of manners’ conflation of manners and morals. As James’s characters struggle for a livable synthesis of manners and morals, James focuses on understanding the special social skills, limitations, and perceptions of women. James realized the full dramatic potential of his innovative comedy of manners only once, in The High Bid, a play that stands as an emblem of his successful distillation of the dramatic tradition. Although James’s plays often suffer from oblique dialogue, melodrama, and flimsy plots, his dramatic works that came after The American are generally more graceful and are often more substantial than is the successful West End fare of such contemporaries as Arthur Wing Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones.

James’s theater interests were encouraged by such important figures as actresses Elizabeth Robins and Fanny Kemble, writer and producer Harley Granville-Barker, and playwright George Bernard Shaw; his work was commissioned by the actress Ellen Terry and by producer-managers Augustin Daly, Charles Frohman, Edward Compton, Sir John Hare, and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson. James’s achievements as a playwright, however, remain limited. Although his plays are stageable (two were successfully produced in London in the late 1960’s), his work has found success on television, stage, and screen only through the adaptations of his fiction by other writers. When he first edited James’s plays, Leon Edel suggested that they were most important as experiments in the “dramatic method” that enabled James to write his last novels. Many critics join Edel in finding the plays most important as adjuncts to James’s fiction.


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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 Unmentionable Subject.” Raritan 16 (Winter, 1997): 50-63. Claims the story is about that which was once considered almost unmentionable by the genteel: money. James focuses on the extinct code of manners and taste by which refined persons were not supposed to talk much about money.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Henry James. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Bloom has compiled what he considers the best in criticism available on James, presented in order of their original publication. Contains much insight from knowledgeable sources on this important American novelist.

Dewey, Joseph, and Brooke Horvath, eds. “The Finer Thread, the Tighter Weave”: Essays on the Short Fiction of Henry James. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2001. A critical study. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Flannery, Denis. Henry James: A Certain Illusion. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. An analysis of illusion in the works of James. Bibliography and index.

Freedman, Jonathan, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Henry James. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A reference work that provides extensive information on James’s life and literary influences and also details his works and the characters contained in them. Bibliography and index.

Gage, Richard P. Order and Design: Henry James Titled Story Sequences. New York: Peter Lang, 1988. Gage examines James’s published short-story collections, such as Terminations, Embarrassments, and The Soft Side, in order to show how James collected his stories around a central theme. Focusing on the interrelatedness of James’s works, Gage shows how James’s stories can be divided into organized units based upon a holistic design.

Graham, Kenneth. Henry James, a Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. A comprehensive biography.

Greenwood, Christopher. Adapting to the Stage: Theatre and the Work of Henry James. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. An analysis of James’s dramatic works and of his works that have been adapted for the stage. Bibliography and index.

Heldreth, Leonard. “The Ghost and the Self: The Supernatural Fiction of Henry James.” In The Celebration of the Fantastic, edited by Donald E. Morse, Marshall B. Tymn, and Csilla Bertha. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Discusses two typical patterns in James’s ghost stories: In one group, the supernatural force is a trace of the past compelling a character to make a change. In the second group, ghosts constitute an intrusion of the romantic relationship between two characters.

Hocks, Richard A. Henry James: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Hocks’s book is a good introduction to James’s short fiction. The book divides James’s stories into three periods: the early social realism, the middle tales dealing with psychological and moral issues, and the later works of poetic expressionism. Detailed analyses of the major works are provided, along with selections of James’s writings on short fiction and a collection of critical articles on selected works.

Horne, Philip. “Henry James and the Economy of the Short Story.” In Modernist Writers and the Marketplace, edited by Ian Willison, Warwick Gould, and Warren Chernaik. London: Macmillan, 1996. Discusses some of the commercial and social constraints and opportunities that affected James’s writing of short fiction in the last half of his career.

Kaplan, Fred. Henry James: The Imagination of Genius. New York: Morrow, 1992.

Kraft, James. The Early Tales of Henry James. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. Kraft briefly covers James’s theory of short fiction and gives considerable emphasis to James’s little known early stories. He focuses on James’s development as a writer of short fiction, beginning with James’s first story “A Tragedy of Error” (1864) and ending with “The International Episode” (1879). This book is not for the student interested in James’s major works.

Lewis, R. W. B. The Jameses. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.

Lustig, T. J. Henry James and the Ghostly. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Discusses James’s ghost stories and the significance of the “ghostly” for James’s work generally. Among the best-known James stories discussed are “The Jolly Corner” and “The Turn of the Screw.” Lustig devotes a third of this study to “The Turn of the Screw,” which he argues is a story about reading.

Martin, W. R., and Warren U. Ober. Henry James’s Apprenticeship: The Tales, 1864-1882. Toronto: P. D. Meany Publishers, 1994. An analysis of the stories James wrote in the first fifteen years of his career, suggesting how the vision he was creating in those stories prepared for the writing of his first masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady. Discusses the sources of his basic theme of the victimized innocent.

Moore, Harry Thornton. Henry James. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999. A biography that covers the life and works of James.

Nettels, Elsa. Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. Elsa Nettels examines American writers struggling with the problems of patriarchy.

Novick, Sheldon M. Henry James: The Young Master. New York: Random House, 1996. A controversial biography which provoked considerable debate between Novick and Edel. Novick explores James’s career up to The Portrait of a Lady, delving more daringly into James’s sexual life than other biographers. Includes notes and bibliography.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Madness of Art: Henry James’s ‘The Middle Years.’” New Literary History 27 (Spring, 1996): 259-262. Discusses the story’s buried theme as that of the strange marriage of artist and “greatest admirer.”

Pearson, John H. The Prefaces of Henry James: Framing the Modern Reader. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. In Chapter 5 of this study, Pearson examines James’s preface to volume 17 of his collected works, which contains such stories as “The Altar of the Dead,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” and “The Birthplace.” Provides an intertextual reading of these stories as self-reflective tales in which author and reader are dialectically opposed.

Pippin, Robert B. Henry James and Modern Moral Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A look at the moral message James tried to convey through his works.

Pollak, Vivian R., ed. New Essays on “Daisy Miller” and “The Turn of the Screw.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Includes feminist and psychological approaches as well as a study of the stories in the context of the Victorian period. Contains an introduction and bibliography.

Rawlings, Peter. “A Kodak Refraction of Henry James’s ‘The Real Thing.’” Journal of American Studies 32 (December, 1998): 447-462. Discusses “The Real Thing” and its treatment of issues of representation and reproduction as an allegory in which the tyrannical forces of the real and the vulgar, unless subjected to the processes of selection and idealization, can be all-vanquishing.

Rowe, John Carlos. The Other Henry James. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. A biography of James that examines his political and social views and looks at his portrayal of gender and sex roles.

Simon, Linda. The Critical Reception of Henry James: Creating a Master. Rochester: Camden House, 2007. A thorough study of criticism of James’ work, ranging from early magazine reviews to contemporary studies.

Stevens, Hugh. Henry James and Sexuality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A study of sexuality as it presents itself in James’s work, including homosexuality and sex roles. Bibliography and index.

Tambling, Jeremy. Henry James. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. From the series Critical Issues. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Vaid, Krishna Balden. Technique in the Tales of Henry James. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. Vaid covers all the major works, gives a comprehensive overview of James’s writings on short fiction, and focuses on James’s styles of narration and his careful balance of summary and scene. The book contains an excellent chapter on James’s later tales.

Wagenknecht, Edward. The Tales of Henry James. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. The book contains brief analyses of fifty-five of James’s major tales as well as thumbnail sketches of other stories. It provides a good reference work for someone looking for short summaries and critical bibliographies (found in the footnotes) but lacks detailed criticism of individual works as well as historical perspective.


Critical Essays