Analysis

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Last Updated on August 30, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

“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.

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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.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239

Published a few years before the great novels of James’s so-called late style, characterized by rhetorical complexity, “The Real Thing” is interesting as an example of its author’s successful use of the “popular” style to convey the more serious meanings already discussed.

The story moves quickly, gracefully, with an elegant, precise prose recalling the sparkle of James’s earlier works such as Daisy Miller (1879) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). The first-person narration is successful in establishing a central point of view—James’s trademark—while maintaining the lively, spontaneous tone. Additionally, by allowing the artist to speak for himself, James brings his dilemma into sharper focus, making it a personal drama rather than a dry monologue or a mere critique of aesthetic theory disguised as a story. The artist’s personality is keenly felt—his wit, his compassion, even his delusion of someday capturing the real thing.

Finally, and characteristically, the story is marked by an intriguing use of names, an almost Dickensian exuberance and unabashed simplicity. The name “Monarch” is obviously suggestive. So, too, is the grossly discordant “Churm” and the shallow flashiness of “Oronte.” The name of the artist’s friend, Claude Rivet, suggests the iron-bound commercialism by which the Monarchs are judged. Even the title of the novel for which the artist is providing illustrations, Rutland Ramsey, suggests a mild parody of James’s own first novel of artists in Rome, Roderick Hudson (1876).

Bibliography

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

Anesko, Michael. “Friction with the Market”: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Henry James. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Dewey, Joseph, and Brooke Horvath, eds.“The Finer Thread, the Tighter Weave”: Essays on the Short Fiction of Henry James. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2001.

Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Graham, Kenneth. Henry James, a Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Habegger, Alfred. Henry James and the “Woman Business.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Harden, Edgard F. A Henry James Chronology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Hocks, Richard A. Henry James: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Kaplan, Fred. Henry James: The Imagination of Genius. New York: William Morrow, 1992.

Lustig, T. J. Henry James and the Ghostly. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Martin, W. R., and Warren U. Ober. Henry James’s Apprenticeship: The Tales, 1864-1882. Toronto: P. D. Meany, 1994.

Nettels, Elsa. Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Novick, Sheldon M. Henry James: The Young Master. New York: Random House, 1996.

Pollak, Vivian R., ed. New Essays on “Daisy Miller” and “The Turn of the Screw.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Rawlings, Peter. Henry James and the Abuse of the Past. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Tambling, Jeremy. Henry James. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

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