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“The Pupil” is an 1891 short story written by American-British author Henry James, first published in Longman’s Magazine. In it, a penniless young graduate from Oxford and Yale by the name of Pemberton, is hired by a rich, eccentric American family to tutor their prodigious son—Morgan Moreen, as they move from hotel to hotel to avoid the creditors. The close relationship Pemberton and Morgan establish is, essentially, the main theme of the story.

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During his tutoring, Pemberton realizes that Morgan is a very smart and intelligent boy. He develops a close friendship with him, and some critics even argue that their complicated relationship has some homo-erotic undertones. Morgan begins to trust his tutor unconditionally, and he tells Pemberton how his family is very neglectful and judgmental. As time goes by, Pemberton realizes that, even though Morgan’s parents often speak very fondly of their son, they also keep their distance from him. Morgan tells him that his parents are shameful, cheating liars, and advises him to leave as soon as another employment opportunity arises. Thus, when an offer for anther tutoring post in England becomes available, Pemberton leaves the Moreens.

However, the Moreens trick Pemberton into returning by telling him that Morgan has become deathly ill. Pemberton comes back and sees that the Moreens have lied to him and that Morgan is fine and wishes to escape his life with his parents. Pemberton realizes that the Moreens will soon become broke, and he begins to think that maybe he should run away with Morgan. The Moreens use what was left of their money to move into a cheap hotel, and they ask Pemberton to take responsibility for Morgan, as they believe that Pemberton is the one to blame for their son’s wish to leave them. Pemberton hesitates, which deeply affects and hurts Morgan. Unable to cope with the emotional stress, and because of his weakened heart, Morgan dies.

Some critics argue that, even though Pemberton’s hesitation is justifiable, perhaps he is partly at fault for Morgan’s death, as the boy felt a deep connection to his tutor. Essentially, the psychological development and trauma which Morgan endures are what makes James’s story so complex and interesting. Because of its sad ending, many believe that “The Pupil” might be considered a tragedy as well.

Aside from “The Pupil”, Henry James wrote several other works which cover the theme of dysfunctional families, neglected children, and troubled youngsters, such as: What Masie Knew (1897), The Awkward Age (1899), and The Turn of the Screw (1898).

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 385

Henry James tells the story objectively from Pemberton’s perspective, never intruding his own opinions. However, irony abounds to highlight the discrepancies between appearance and reality. Thus, Pemberton accepts the position of tutor because he needs money to pay his hotel bill, yet in the course of his employment he will, together with his employers, avoid many another such charge. Though Pemberton is nominally the tutor and Morgan the pupil, the child proves to be the more clever of the two.

He also seems older and more experienced. Indeed, while he is the youngest member of the household, he notes that his older brother imitates him, and he refers to himself as if he were the patriarch of the family: “I’ll take their affairs in hand; I’ll marry my sisters,” he reassures Pemberton. Such a self-image is not wholly fanciful because his parents do behave like irresponsible children and only he shows concern for their reputation.

However, another irony is Morgan’s weak heart. Of all the characters, he is the most generous. He repeatedly urges Pemberton to leave his family because he knows that he never will earn any money from them, and he is willing to give away his very life. All the others are more or less self-centered; even Pemberton’s heart is not as great as Morgan’s.

The numerous ironies not only emphasize the deceptiveness of appearances but also add an element of humor that diminishes the sense of tragedy. Pemberton laughs when he is asked to give money to the people who should be paying him. Pemberton agrees to work for free if he can tell Morgan that the Moreens are not paying him; immediately afterward, Pemberton discovers that Morgan already knows this “secret.” These repeated reversals distance readers by giving them a sense of superior knowledge or insight. They are thus able to judge the characters dispassionately.

Perhaps James has in this way introduced a final irony. The reader responds to Morgan’s death, as the Moreens do, like “a man of the world.” Has James tricked his audience into becoming like these unsavory characters? Pemberton succumbs to their spell; he really does find them charming and finally behaves like them. Because Morgan’s death does not seem tragic, is the reader, too, composed of moreen?


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 233

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