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Last Updated on August 29, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

Appearance versus Reality

The overriding theme of "The Real Thing," as suggested by its title, is that of appearance versus reality, particularly in relation to art. The narrator of the story is a portrait painter, and the plot involves him utilizing "the real thing"—some genuinely respectable, attractive, and formerly aristocratic people, the Monarchs—as the models for his work. However, he later discovers that they are inept as models and that he is much more comfortable using actors who are, in fact, ugly and look less wealthy. While happy to have met these beautiful, formerly wealthy people, they have served no real purpose for him in pursuing his artistry. He also cannot figure out how to portray them accurately: each time he depicts them, they look like themselves rather than the characters he is assigned to portray. Though they are “the real thing,” they are not effective for his purposes. 

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Art and Life

Art—or the art people want to see—is not an accurate reflection of real life. People want a portrait or a painting in the age of photography because they have a particular image in mind that they want to see fulfilled. Having "the real thing" is not actually "better" than seeing an image of something presented in the way we expect. Art does not so much imitate life as conceal life, presenting it in a way we would like it to be. The art director of the project that the narrator is working on expresses dissatisfaction with the work thus far—the work that features the Monarchs. Even though the project would theoretically benefit from models like the Monarchs who “look the part,” the opposite is true. Art, therefore, is not completely representative of the authentic experience. Art tells us about our experiences but does not necessarily replace them. 

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The Double Edge of Beauty and Wealth

In detailing his difficulties, the painter explains that the difference between the ugly couple and the beautiful one is that the ugly couple can imagine themselves in any guise, and this helped the painter interpret what he saw. Their power of imagination fueled his. However, the beautiful couple was unable to adequately perform simple duties, and they were unable to present themselves as anything other than a lady and gentleman because they lacked imagination. This can be summed up in a theme: ugly or poor people are far better at adapting to the world in order to present a face it will accept, while rich and beautiful people—who have always been accepted at face value—have never learned these skills and therefore find it very difficult to be anything other than what they are. Though the Monarchs’ position in the past was admirable, without their wealth, they are clumsy. Through attempting to perform tasks that the working class is familiar with, they reveal they lack the skill to do so. When what they are is enough, this is fine, but when they fall on hard times, they will struggle. Humans survive best when they accept that they must "prepare a face" appropriate to every situation. Honesty is not always as valuable—or saleable—as the capacity to adapt.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

“The Real Thing” is an extraordinarily subtle work demanding, like much of the work of Henry James, sensitivity and perceptiveness from the reader. The theme, one of James’s recurring preoccupations, is the artist’s honest struggle with his material, a struggle to render a subject in all of its multifaceted meaning. The Monarchs are the real thing, but their very authenticity, their very perfection is somehow not enough for the artist to capture. As the ideal, they are easily recognizable yet just as elusive. The artist’s struggle to paint them ends in failure because, though it is the nature of art to be always striving for perfection, on the human level of the artist, it must always miss—perfection being beyond human attainment.

In this sense, “The Real Thing” is suggestive of a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer whom James admired and about whom he published one of the first critical studies (1879). In that Hawthorne story, “The Artist of the Beautiful,” Owen Warfield—whose name signifies the artist’s dilemma, the warfare between ideality and reality—strives for the perfection of his art, but in the struggle destroys his creation. So too, in “The Real Thing,” the artist is unable to capture fully what the Monarchs are and must turn them away, although, as he says, he was happy “to have paid the price—for the memory.”

In this sense, too, the characters of Oronte and Miss Churm amplify the meaning. Unlike the Monarchs, they are not the aesthetic ideal, but the mundanely real, the concrete, the actual; these qualities the artist is most successful in dealing with. The question becomes, then, whether the artist’s achievement is in the ability to capture the ideal on its own terms, or, rather, is in the ability to shape phenomena into a form that merely suggests or approaches the ideal. Significantly, the artist in James’s story is engaged in a series of illustrations for a magazine called Cheapside, a wonderfully apt appellation, connotative of quality as well as locale: The artist is a commercial success; he is becoming popular and is fearful for his reputation. Pursuit of the Monarchs (as Owen Warfield’s invention was a mechanical butterfly) means failure. Working comfortably, risk-free, with his professional models ensures success in the marketplace. He is, in this light, a second-rate artist, having, in his own words, “an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one.”

Finally, a second theme runs simultaneously along with that of the artist’s struggle with his material: the demise of the aristocratic class in a society more and more fluid, increasingly amenable to the rising lower orders who make things work. The Monarchs can be seen as anachronisms, unable in their effete gentility to compete with the aggressive versatility of the worldly middle class. So ill-equipped are they for survival in the society of shifting values that they fail even at being domestics, unable even to serve where once they were so obviously served.

Oscar Wilde perceived the decay of the aristocracy in his brilliant comedy of the same period, The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (1895), in which aristocratic drawing-room manners and life-styles are parodied into absurdity. In one scene, for example, Lady Bracknell sums up her nephew’s attributes thus: “He looks everything but has nothing.” If the same could be said of the Monarchs, it is a declaration less humorous and more pitiful.

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