The Spoils of Poynton

by Henry James

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Henry James's novel The Spoils of Poynton tells the story of a battle of sorts—between mother and son—over the riches and artwork that lays at the family home: Poynton. The mother, Adeleh, doesn't want the inheritance falling into the hands of a poorly bred woman like the one her son, Owen, is planning to marry, so she hires a woman named Fleda to convince him to break it off. Owen plays the long con and convinces his mother he's going to marry Fleda before taking back the fineries from the house and traveling abroad to marry his first fiancée. Here are several themes from the work.

The Nature of "Spoils" of War

The first theme to discuss is the idea of spoils. Spoils are typically the reward for winning a war, but in this case, it was an inheritance withheld. The mother and son essentially turn their disagreement into a war, full of espionage and trickery, and when the son "wins" by tricking his mother into returning the artwork and other items of value to the house in Poynton, he takes them and presumably causes the fire at the end—a reference to scorched earth policies in war.

Class Prejudice

The second theme in the work is the idea of prejudice. Initially, Adeleh is prejudiced against her future daughter-in-law because she does not think she is a worthy match for her son. She believes that Mona is coarse, unkind, and of poor breeding. This prejudice may be well deserved, but it separates Adeleh from her son, who loves Mona. Fleda, ironically, also shows some prejudice in her treatment of Owen and Mona, but she is characterized by rationalism and restraint—as she gives them the benefit of the doubt and forces Owen to assure her that he will not cruelly leave Mona by herself, which was Adeleh's initial intention.

The "Cruel, Conniving" Mother Archetype

A final theme in the work is the idea of the cruel, conniving woman. Adeleh shows a contempt for Mona because she is "coarse" and "a philistine." Ironically, Adeleh shows cruelty, deception, and a domineering attitude throughout the work, suggesting that she is the coarser woman in the work. Fleda is the foil for Adeleh, as she is an impartial outside observer who intervenes in an attempt to help the family remain stable and unified,] and eventually displays maturity when confronting Owen about his actions in professing love to her.

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