Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Lesson of the Master” is told in the characteristic manner of James’s middle years, without the notorious complexity of his late style. The sentences are relatively short, and the plot, on the surface, is easy to follow. However, nothing is straightforward in James. Indeed, the tale is steeped in irony and ambiguity; one might apply a statement that Overt makes about St. George’s work to James and this tale: “For one who looks at it from the artistic point of view it contains a bottomless ambiguity.”

The point of view is that of a third-person, omniscient narrator who concentrates on Overt’s thoughts and actions. The use of the narrator allows James to explore the relationship between the artist and an active social life without passing judgment on any of the primary or secondary characters. This technique alone casts a shadow of ambiguity over every aspect of the tale.

The plot is ironic and ambiguous in that St. George tells Overt not to marry Marian because it is clear that his decline is attributed to his marriage; then St. George, on the death of his first wife, marries Marian himself. The twist is that although St. George seems to have betrayed Overt, he has, in effect, sealed Overt’s future. Point of view is all-important here; it is not the events themselves that are important but how they are perceived.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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