Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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?


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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