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Book Discussion: The Real Thing by Henry James

Updated on October 01, 2016

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Artifice versus Reality

In The Real Thing, written by Henry James, artifice, regarding art, is a glorified representation of reality and, therefore, possesses a greater quality of realism to it than reality itself. James, here, alludes to the factor of malleability in many separate occasions throughout the piece. Perhaps this quality is more important than a certain graceful stagnancy which permeates this short story. It can be thought, also, that perhaps James uses his own writing to portray this view of artifice versus reality. Through evaluation of key passages, and moderate textual analysis, it can be assumed that James is trying to perpetuate this idea that artifice, within and without the confines of art, can be, and often is, more glorious than the reality of the thing itself.

Throughout the story, James plays around with this idea of “The Real Thing” and it’s relativity to usefulness in art. From the very first passage, the reader enters the art studio of our unnamed protagonist at a time when two guests come in; Major and Mrs. Monarch. Our protagonist could not imagine that this caliber of persons would come to him for a low-paying job such as modeling. This is the point at which James introduces “The Real Thing”. In the following scene, Major Monarch suggests that he and his wife are the ideal models for an artist, indeed, the ‘real thing’. “Wouldn't it be rather a pull sometimes to have — a — to have —?” He hung fire; he wanted me to help him by phrasing what he meant. But I couldn't — I didn't know. So he brought it out, awkwardly: "The real thing; a gentleman, you know, or a lady” (James, 237).

However, James offers the readers an opposition to the idea of ‘the real thing’. Mrs. Churm, a character who is, by no means, a well-educated, wealthy lady, however, enters the scene, and our protagonist enlightens the reader to the fact that she, who is “…so little in herself…” has the ability to be “…so much in others.” (James, 237) By this, he means in her ability to pose for the sketches. He could make her up to be anything he needed, and she would fit the part. The Monarchs, however, lack this quality. No matter how our protagonist tried to make them up, they would remain austere, gentlemanly, or ladylike, and could not be made into anything else. Why is this? James alludes that this is due to their graceful stagnancy in that they are, indeed so realistic that it becomes less than expedient to use them as models. This inextricable lack of artificiality is what causes them to be nothing but who they are. However, mightn’t one think that art is the auditory/graphical/existential representation of that which is real?

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.

By the end of the story, the Monarchs realize their lack of usefulness as models for any artist because they are exactly what they are, no more or less. It is after Mrs. Monarch advances to fix Miss Churm’s hair up in a way such as to make it ‘…twice as charming” that we receive this passage. “When it came over me, the latent eloquence of what they were doing, I confess that my drawing was blurred for a moment — the picture swam. They had accepted their failure, but they couldn't accept their fate. They had bowed their heads in bewilderment to the perverse and cruel law in virtue of which the real thing could be so much less precious than the unreal; but they didn't want to starve” (James, 253). Here, James almost spells out that, while it isn’t fair for such a thing to be the case, this is how it has always been, and must yet be: Artifice shall always stand to provide a stronger example than that which occurs naturally. It is on that note that James hints at his broader scope.

Indeed, to further perpetuate his argument, James uses an artificial medium, the fictional short story, to portray an accurate and realistic picture of how and why an artificial focus is, often, the only means by which one can portray an accurate and realistic picture. This may strike some as the obvious method-of-choice for portraying any kind of idea – by using the same medium as the idea-to-be-portrayed. However, when one tries to consider the methods one might be able to use to communicate ideas in the very medium of the ideas-to-be-portrayed, one comes up short. James, in this way, has proven his skill as a great writer, and, in a way, artist.

However, perhaps there is somewhat of a meta-moral, if the term may be coined, which pertains to this idea. James uses the fictional written word as his artist’s canvas to bring forth the idea of reality. This is, by no means, any different than what our protagonist does with Miss Churm. What would be the main difference in this story were it a biography? Undoubtedly, it would not be fitted just ‘so’, as it is in its fictional form, and we would be unable to completely see the events as they have taken place through the eyes of our narrator. This would lead to an almost watered-down version of the truth – though it, in itself, is more viable than the fictional variant.

Although artificiality permeates the way in which we see every day life, the fact does not make the experience any less real or meaningful. James, while highlighting the usefulness and attractiveness of artifice within an artistic setting performs a great trick by bringing the idea forth by an artificial means to convey the idea that art is meant to be less real; and it is that precise quality that brings to light the deeper facets of our existence. The Real Thing¸ a simple story about an artist and his sitters comes across as so much more as Henry James conveys a not-so-simple dichotomy that has always existed, exists today, and may perhaps always exist, between the relative virtues of artifice and reality.

Works Cited

Henry, James,. Complete stories, 1892-1898. New York: Library of America, Distributed to the trade in the U.S. by Penguin Books, 1996. Print.


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    • Lukas Janicik 4 years ago

      Nice reading, thanks for the essay. It really helped with my studying! :)

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