Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The nature of a man’s illusions about himself is the central theme that James explores in this story. On one level, Morgan Mallow lives a life of self-deception, believing that he is a great artist when, in fact, he has no talent. However, because of this lack of knowledge, he goes on living as a happy, self-satisfied man. His situation is in direct contrast to that of Peter. On a more significant level, Peter discovers that although he always has assumed that he was a man without illusions, it is he who has been living with the illusion, not Mrs. Mallow.

This theme achieves its meaning through the refined sensibility of Peter. He is a man of taste, one who avoids “vulgarity”; he judges himself as one who feels “an extreme and general humility to be his proper portion.” For such a man to discover that, for all of his humility, he lived a life based on an illusion calls that very humility into question—in fact, calls his whole life into question.

The age of the protagonist is a central factor in this theme: Peter is not a young man, with his life before him, but rather a man in his fifties, an age when one examines one’s achievements in life, when one tries to determine what one’s life has meant. He has devoted his life to a woman who is not the person he thought she was, and his illusion has cost him a larger life, one in which he might well have lived more fully.