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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“The Real Thing” is an account of an artist’s inability to realistically recreate the image of two models, Major and Mrs. Monarch. The title, “The Real Thing”, reveals one of the major concepts presented in the story: the idea that there is a pronounced discrepancy between what is actually real and what is merely a facade created by the characters. The theme presented is that people often hide their true selves in an attempt to portray a certain image to the outside world.

The first example of this is that the artist is essentially leading a double life. One side of this life is as “a great painter of portraits.” The other half of his work is that of a simple illustrator “for magazines, for story-books, for sketches of contemporary life.” The first occupation is one of respectability and pride, but the second occupation is a source of embarrassment, hidden from many individuals. He needs the money, however, and thus keeps at it. In the end, the artist’s simple illustrations seem to have caused damage to his career as a painter. In order to support himself, the artist must embark on both roads. His image does not necessarily match the higher reputation he hopes to uphold for himself. 

The second instance of a hidden existence is with the Monarchs. This couple prudently visits the artist in order to attempt careers as models, in hopes of recouping some of their lost money. They meet him in an almost secret manner, and it is clear that “they evidently wished to be discreet—to take care not to swagger because they were gentlefolks.” Because of their previous place in society as a gentleman and a lady, they are embarrassed to appear desperate and want to remain as concealed as possible. Yet they clearly need money. When it becomes clear they are not models of the same caliber that the artist prefers, they even “degrade” their status to work as servants (which proves to be so uncomfortable for everyone involved that the artist pays them to leave).

In both of these examples, the characters are hiding “the real thing” from the rest of the world. The artist and the Monarchs create a false existence as a prominent artist and a high-class couple, but all the while they are living lives of embarrassment and poverty. In the end, the characters’ inability to connect with reality harms them all greatly. Of course, it seems that no one wants to experience “the real thing.” They want the manicured image of authenticity without all the nitty-gritty details of it. 

Henry James was particularly fascinated by ideas of reality and illusion. While the lower-class characters of Oronte and Miss Churm are “the real thing” in terms of their dynamic nature, so are the Monarchs “the real thing” as aristocrats. Who is truly “real”? James leaves this contradiction up to readers. It is important to note the name of the aristocratic couple: the Monarchs. They are inherently associated with royalty, wealth, and power. It is ironic that they have somehow lost their status and now must plead to be the narrator’s models. Their “reign” has unfortunately ended.

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