Henry James’ Short Fiction

It seems to me somewhat misleading to speak of the “short fiction” of Henry James, given that the average story in this collection exceeds 100 pages, with one approaching 200 – perhaps novella is the preferred term, though James himself referred to his shorter works as his nouvelles. Nomenclature aside, these shorter works seem to me highly experimental, particularly for the author regularly described as the very avatar of literary realism: they encompass, for example, two ghost stories, a character study and some clever exploitation of the narrator and his or her relationship to the story being told.

My particular collection includes “The Turn of the Screw,” “Washington Square,” “Daily Miller,” “The Jolly Corner” and “The Beast in the Jungle,” all of which are – or at least used to be – fixtures in college courses on short fiction, and in literary anthologies, and for good reason: James is a technical virtuoso, packing every paragraph – every line of dialogue – with meaning, and so adeptly controlling the tone and atmosphere of his stories that his readers are at the mercy of his craft. This is important, too, because the drama of these stories does not, for the most part, occur at the level of plot. For as long as James’ fiction has been a mainstay in classrooms, it has been reliably putting inattentive students to sleep, for there is little in the way of action to keep their interest through the long sentences and unbroken paragraphs. (This, incidentally, was a reputation that haunted James in his own lifetime, with audiences at his early dramas booing and jeering at the lack of action on stage.) His drama is of the psychological kind – even his ghost stories frighten not by what occurs but what might have occurred, by implication and insinuation more than apparition. Take, for example, “Washington Square,” the story of a wealthy New York doctor, Dr. Sloper, whose daughter Catherine is pursued by a man more interested in her inheritance than her character. The doctor’s wife has passed away before the story’s beginning, and we are given to believe that his daughter has been something of a disappointment to him: not brilliant or particularly beautiful. “A dull, plain girl she was called by rigorous critics – a quiet, ladylike girl, by those of the more imaginative sort; but by neither class was she very elaborately discussed.” When her father brings his widowed sister into the home to live with them, he asks her to “make a clever woman of her,” to which the sister replies questioningly: “My dear Austin, do you think it is better to be clever than to be good?” His answer is telling: “You are good for nothing unless you are clever.”

Catherine is not clever, and she is naive enough about Morris Townsend, the man pursuing her, that she cannot see through his intentions. Her father, on the other hand, can see all too clearly why this young, handsome and well-liked man is pursuing his daughter, and he intervenes to stop their engagement, first by vocally disapproving and later by giving it out that he will write Catherine out of his inheritance should she disobey him and marry Morris. Dr. Sloper, it turns out, is correct about Morris Townsend, but he is blind to his daughter’s essential nature, her goodness, and this makes him callous in his treatment of her. In the following exchange, Catherine offers to hold off on the marriage until some future time when, she hopes, her father will give his consent. His reply is cutting:

“Of course, you can wait till I die, if you like.”
Catherine gave a cry of natural horror.
“Your engagement will have one delightful effect upon you; it will make you extremely impatient for that event.”
Catherine stood staring, and the Doctor enjoyed the point he made. It came to Catherine with the force – or rather with the vague impressiveness – of a logical axiom which it was not in her province to controvert; and yet, though it was a scientific truth, she felt wholly unable to accept it.
“I would rather not marry, if that were true,” she said.
“Give me proof of it, then; for it is beyond a question that by engaging yourself to Morris Townsend you simply wait for my death.”
She turned away, feeling sick and faint; and the Doctor went on. “And if you wait for it with impatience, judge, if you please, what his eagerness will be!”
Catherine turned it over – her father’s words had such an authority over her that her very thoughts were capable of obeying him. There was a dreadful ugliness in it, which seemed to glare at her through the interposing medium of her own feebler reason. Suddenly, however, she had an inspiration – she almost knew it to be an inspiration.
“If I don’t marry before your death, I will not after,” she said.

James is making full use of his third-person omniscient narrator, giving us insight into both their minds to make this failed communion all the more painful. Obstinacy and hardheartedness prevent the Doctor from understanding the sincerity of his daughter’s pleas, and his rejoinders in this context are searing. She is offering nothing less than a lifetime of solitude as proof of her devotion to her father, yet he can only return her affection with scorn. The Doctor will soon die, and Catherine, true to her word, will live out the rest of her days in solitude.

It might be said that the mistreatment of women, deliberate or unintentional, at the hands of men constitutes a major theme of these works. In “Daisy Miller,” one of James’ most famous and enduring stories, a young American girl abroad in Europe violates every social custom, scandalizing Italian society with how attentive she is to men and how free she is with her company. She is pursued by another American, Frederick Winterbourne, who shares Dr. Sloper’s inability to see a woman clearly, without the distorting lens of his own presuppositions. When she seemingly chooses the company of a young Italian man over his own, Winterbourne moves to dismiss her in his mind: “She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect.” But this answer is more than a little self-serving, and Daisy will pay the price of Winterbourne’s misjudgments, just as Catherine pays for her father’s. This expert juggling of characters at cross purposes provides the drama James’ plots lack, and no attentive reader will feel himself shortchanged.