(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

At the heart of much of Henry James’s fiction is the idea of an education—a gaining of knowledge by a protagonist that changes his or her view of the world. In the longer form of the novel, such as The Portrait of a Lady (1881), a number of experiences gradually educate the protagonist, but with the shorter form, such as in this story, James relies on one incident to change a character’s view of the world—and himself. The concept of “knowledge”—the key term in the title “The Tree of Knowledge”—is the central concern around which the psychological action revolves. Peter Brench, the protagonist, is a man who loses his innocence, his illusions, through an experience with his godson, Lancelot Mallow.

The action begins with the announcement by Lancelot’s mother, Mrs. Mallow, that her son shall not return to college at Cambridge, but instead will go to Paris and learn to become a painter. Peter, a family friend who has been secretly in love with Mrs. Mallow for twenty years, arranges a meeting with Lance in an attempt to persuade him not to go to Paris, but to return to college.

Peter does not wish Lance to go to Paris to study painting because he fears that Lance will learn that his father, who has proclaimed himself a great artist as a sculptor, and who has devoted his life to his sculpting, is without talent. Peter primarily wishes to protect Mrs. Mallow from this knowledge, for he fears that it would bring her great pain and destroy her love for her husband. When Lance questions Peter on why Peter does not wish him to go to Paris, Peter declares, “I’ve the misfortune to be omniscient.” Lance misinterprets the statement to mean that Peter does not believe that Lance has the talent to become an artist. Lance wishes to reassure Peter that he is mature enough to find out the truth about himself, and he replies that his “innocence”...

(The entire section is 771 words.)