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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715

Henry James’s “The Lesson of the Master” focuses on Paul Overt, a young novelist with three or four novels to his credit, who is caught up in the dilemma of choosing the time-absorbing business of living or the isolation of art. Henry St. George, whose reputation as an artist remains...

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Henry James’s “The Lesson of the Master” focuses on Paul Overt, a young novelist with three or four novels to his credit, who is caught up in the dilemma of choosing the time-absorbing business of living or the isolation of art. Henry St. George, whose reputation as an artist remains high though his later work is inferior, is the master of the title, with Overt his pupil.

The tale begins with Overt arriving at Summersoft, an old country house near London, to find, to his delight, that St. George, whose early works played an important part in forming Overt as a novelist, is a member of the party. Before meeting St. George and within minutes after meeting Mrs. St. George, Overt determines that the cause of the decline of St. George’s work is without doubt Mrs. St. George. She is, in his opinion, more suitable a wife for a keeper of books than for a literary master.

St. George joins the party but is preoccupied with the beautiful young Marian Fancourt, who has recently arrived in England from India and is very fond of literature and writers. From Marian, Overt learns all that he can about St. George. He tells her that if he were to be brought together with his idol he would be prostrate.

Prostrate is what Overt is when St. George expresses admiration for his work and special esteem for Overt’s latest novel, Ginistrella. St. George advises Overt to learn from the example of the failure of his later works and not let his old age become a “deplorable illustration of the worship of false gods.” The false gods are, in St. George’s view, all that is associated with having an active social life, “the idols of the market—money and luxury and ’the world,’ placing one’s children and dressing one’s wife—everything that drives one to the short and easy way.”

Back in London, Overt is tempted by one of St. George’s false gods in the form of Marian Fancourt. As Overt and Marian’s relationship becomes serious, St. George sends for Overt to come to him. St. George says that his life is that of the successful charlatan who, having everything for personal happiness, has missed the real thing. He has missed “the sense of having done the best—the sense, which is the real life of the artist and the absence of which is his death, of having drawn from his intellectual instrument the finest music that nature has hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played.” The master’s confession of his mistake and his desire to save Overt from making the same one overwhelm the younger man, and he agrees to give up Marian and all pursuit of personal happiness.

The converted Overt exiles himself to Switzerland, where he learns from Marian by letter that St. George’s wife is dead. When Overt writes in sympathy to St. George, he receives a bewildering reply: Earlier St. George had told Overt not to marry, but now he writes that he would not be at the head of his profession if it had not been for his wife. All that St. George has advocated seems a bad joke, and Overt thinks of returning to London, giving up his ambitions; instead, however, he recommits himself to his art.

After two years in Switzerland, Overt returns to London, where he is told by Marian’s father that St. George is engaged to marry Marian. Overt feels betrayed and confronts St. George, who assures him that he was always sincere; the knowledge that he is saving Overt as an artist adds greatly to the pleasure of marrying Marian. He also informs Overt that he is through as an artist and will not write again.

Later in the year, Overt’s new book is published and considered “really magnificent” by the St. Georges; the narrator of the tale adds that Overt is “doing his best but . . . it is too soon to say.” The narrator goes on to say that the proof that Overt is dedicated to his art and not to personal happiness is that he would be the first to appreciate a new work by St. George should there be one.

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