Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“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...

(The entire section is 579 words.)