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Henry James The Real Thing Analysis Essay

In the short story “The Real Thing”, written in 1884 by Henry James, the author tells the story about an aristocratic couple coming to an artist’s studio in search for employment as models. Even though the artist, who is the narrating protagonist and remains unnamed, has no particular need for them as models, he decides to give them a try and draws them for an important project he is working on, a project which might be his chance to achieve great fame and fortune. During the following drawing sessions, it slowly becomes apparent that both the narrator and the Monarchs, his impoverished but still upper-class models, fail at their tasks: The artist seems to be unable to paint them as successfully as he normally draws his regular models, and they appear to be rather inflexible in terms of changing into the roles they are supposed to represent. However, both parties undergo a process of change during the course of the story, which takes them from being prototypes, a typical painter and a typical aristocratic couple, to being characters. In this research paper, I will show the changes each of them undergoes, and the way they both fail at their tasks.

Before the narrator starts a professional and later a more personal relationship with the Monarchs, he characterizes himself as a typical painter of portraits with daily struggles and ambitions for the future.

Early in the first part, he summarizes his work as follows: “[…] I worked in black-and-white, for magazines, for storybooks, […] and consequently had copious employment for models”[1], which is also the reason why his friend Rivet, critic and painter of landscape, had referred the impoverished aristocratic couple to him. The narrator’s plans for the future, however, are higher than that: “[…] I couldn’t get the honours […] of a great painter of portraits out of my head. My ‘illustrations’ were my pot-boilers; I looked to a different branch of art […] to perpetuate my fame.”[2] In the beginning of the second part, we learn of one of the narrator’s stepping-stones towards his envisioned career: He tells the reader about his current project of illustrating a deluxe edition of the much-acclaimed book “Rutland Ramsay”, “but […] my participation in the rest of the affair – this first book was to be a test – must depend on the satisfaction I should give. […] It was therefore a crisis for me”[3]. It is obvious that this project is an important issue for him, and in case he really achieves his goal, the additional work of the following volumes of the book cycle would provide him employment for a long time, while at the same time giving him the fame and reputation he needs to start a career as a painter of portraits.

The narrator, however, still has little character in these early passages of the story, but the image of a typical struggling middle-class artist is established: He has ambitious dreams for the future, but at the moment he needs to earn his living with a less prestigious trade which he hopes to leave behind in the near future.

When Major and Mrs. Monarch first appear, the narrator believes that they are customers who are prepared to pay good money for a portrait of themselves. Soon after, he learns that little is left from their former wealth. But even though they have lost all their money, they still have all the distinguishing features of upper class gentlefolk: Major Monarch, formerly employed in the armed forces, is “very high and very straight, with a moustache slightly grizzled and a dark grey walking-coat admirably fitted”[4], “a celebrity”[5] “with a good deal of frontage”[6], “and a perfect gentleman”[7]. His wife is characterized by the narrator as “tall and straight”[8], “slim and stiff, and so well-dressed”[9], both of them having “an indefinable air of prosperous thrift”[10]. Ironically, this outer appearance makes the artist believe that they are well-to-do, even though the money, the real feature to decide over their status, is long gone.

Moreover it is not only the visual appearance that makes the Monarchs a typical aristocratic couple, but also the way they behave throughout the first half of the story: “we’ve been photographed-immensely, […] the fellows have asked us themselves, […] with our autographs and that sort of thing[11] ”, they remark about their former fame, after which the narrator notices that the couple wishes that “[their] relations […] be kept secret: this was why it was ‘for the figure’ – the reproduction of the face would betray them”[12]. Even though the couple had decided to do work which is normally not done by people of their social status, they wish to keep their reputation, they do not wish that the public or their former friends notice it. The most obvious sign, however, for the Monarchs’ intention to still belong to the high society and to show this to the narrator is the comment by the Major which also gave the story its name: “Wouldn’t it be rather a pull to have […] the real thing: a gentleman, you know, or a lady”[13]. Although they have no money left, they still see themselves as socially far superior than, for example, the other models that the narrator employs.

All this happens before the middle of the second part, and all these events establish an image of the way the narrator and the Monarchs see themselves and wish to be seen by others.


[1] James, P.231

[2] James, P.231

[3] James, P.237

[4] James, P.229

[5] James, P.229

[6] James, P.229

[7] James, P.233

[8] James, P.230

[9] James, P.230

[10] James, P.230

[11] James, P.235

[12] James, P.236

[13] James, P.239

According to James, this is not entirely the case. In the following passage, found on page 241, we see our protagonist describing his dilemma explicitly. “There were moments when I was oppressed by the serenity of [Mrs. Monarch’s] confidence that she was the real thing. All her dealings with me and all her husband's were an implication that this was lucky for me. Meanwhile I found myself trying to invent types that approached her own, instead of making her own transform itself — in the clever way that was not impossible, for instance, to poor Miss Churm. Arrange as I would and take the precautions I would, she always, in my pictures, came out too tall — landing me in the dilemma of having represented a fascinating woman as seven feet high, which, out of respect perhaps to my own very much scantier inches, was far from my idea of such a personage” (James). In this passage, James seems to be leading to the idea that for something to appear real on canvas it must, in fact, be merely an artificial representation, id est, Miss Churm. Throughout the story, it is noted that Miss Churm can be made into anything, while Mrs. Monarch is “already made” (James, 239). This perpetuates the idea that malleability is far more glorious a thing than natural proficiency at fooling artifice: The idea that when something is malleable, regardless of what it is, it can be molded to encompass many uses, contrasting natural proficiency, which, without malleability, is only useful for that which the object is originally intended. This is not to say that natural proficiency is a useless thing; but it doesn’t come across as strongly as the ability to morph into that which is needed for the artist to work with. However, artificiality always seems to find its place among its realistic counterparts.

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