Style and Technique
James viewed this story as a “novel intensely compressed” without “any air of mutilation” into a short story. The rich psychological dimensions of the protagonist are achieved through the use of language, the famous James style—the sentences are long and complex, with one phrase, one thought, qualified by another, and often yet another. The style is entirely appropriate for the protagonist, for Peter Brench is a man of complex thought, a man concerned with nuance and distinctions.
That the action should be viewed through Peter’s mind in third-person-limited point of view is also entirely appropriate, for the real “action” of the story is the psychological processes of Peter’s thoughts and feelings. It is this point of view, a character of central intelligence, on whom the action registers, that enabled James to explore the complexities of thought, the nuances of sensibility, for which he is famous.
The complexity of the overall structure in this story parallels the use of language. In attempting to conceal knowledge from Mrs. Mallow, Peter discovers the very knowledge that will lead to his own self-awareness. The structure also gives ironic dimension to the concepts of omniscience, innocence, illusion, and humility. Typical of James, the irony is not stark and biting, but rather complex and satiric. The various elements of the story—its language, structure, irony—are all in proper proportion to create a harmonious whole.
There are those readers who become impatient with the fiction of James on a first reading, who find his prose too dense and his characters and their situations unexciting. To appreciate his work, one often requires multiple readings with a patient sensitivity. Critics and other writers refer to him as “the Master”—one of the greatest artists in the history of prose fiction—for his ability to dramatize complex subjects. In reference to this particular story, James said his “fun” was in dramatizing the material, in making it live on the page, in compressing what was essentially a novel into the short story form. Brevity and physical action are not his forte; instead, his strengths are in portraying the rich life of the educated mind and the complex relationships between persons of sensitivity and taste.