Tag Archives: Henry James

“Combined with this was another perversity—an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one: the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation” (370).

The narrator’s preference for the “represented subject” over the “real one” carries through to his status as an artist.  Prior to the Monarchs, the narrator employed models who are able to shed their own realities and become no more than representations.  The Monarchs, however, are trapped in a reversal of reality and representation.  They view their monetarily comfortable past as their reality and their current status as a mere act or representation.  When they are posing for the narrator, then, they are not acting, but in some sense reenacting their own past.  When placed in front of the narrator, the Monarchs are able to express a truth, albeit a simple and seemingly superficial one.

The narrator shows a discomfort with the idea that the artistic process can illuminate truth in that he places Mrs. Monarch in various poses, only becoming satisfied with the ones in which her “face was somewhat averted or blurred” (375).  The narrator avoids truth in art, instead opting for projects for cheap publications, including the ironically coined “Cheapside” (379).  His relationships with others appear to be just as shallow as the art he wishes to create.  For example, he cannot remember where his “old friend” John Hawley went for a year.  The Monarchs become unpliable “brawny giants” in the narrator’s works, forcing the viewer to view them for who they are rather than the characters that they represent (374).  The narrator needs for his subject to be a representation in order to stifle the truth that lies in his subjects and instead provide the cheap, fantastical images that sell.

“…I’m content to have paid the price- for the memory.” (James p. 383)

James manages to evoke the most basic human emotions through “The Real Thing” and that is best presented in this sentence. Most people have a strong sense of humanity, and the painter in this story is no different. As much as he resents the Monarchs and understands that their working relationship is not benefiting his work, he is incapable of truly firing them. At the end of the story, he has multiple encounters with them that nearly leads to him essentially closing the door on their faces, but when he finally does have them leave, he still feels obligated to give them money. James is able to capture the inability of most people to form strictly professional bonds with people. No matter one’s ambition, people still hold the needs and well-being of others higher than their own career advancement.

This specific sentence touches on how people often value life and its experiences higher than monetary gain. A lesson that is often taught in literature, but that does not lessen the effect. People can only gain so much satisfaction from cold hard cash; everyone is destine to become a Scrooge without personal relationships. Throughout the story James uses language that evokes feelings of longing and attachment. Specifically when he describes Mrs. Monarch on page 382 as she fixes Miss Churm’s hair. He describes her as a hero. Often people gain more through coming in contact with people who enrich them or behave in uplifting ways than they do from success. James expresses that while the painter did not gain from the professional relationship, he gained even more from an incidental personal relationship.

“I adored variety and range, I cherished human accidents, the illustrative note; I wanted to characterise closely, and the thing in the world I most hated was the danger of being ridden by a type” (374).

James utilizes first-person narrative to emphasize the artist character’s highly personal, strongly rooted beliefs about art and the supposed integrity of its practice. From the beginning, the artist views the humorously-named Monarchs with skepticism. The couple operates inflexibly; in the artist’s eye, they are stagnant, lack dynamic, and adopt an elitist air. A friend asserts that the new models hinder the artwork in their rigid realism, serving as insipid, uninspiring characters (379). Yet James gives no indication of the artist’s own imaginative origins or motivations; glimmers of the artist’s passion for his medium occur in exaggerated, idealistic rhetoric, as demonstrated in the selected quote. Ironically, the narrator – though he views himself as a creative superior to the Monarchs – financially relies upon projects commissioned by literary magazines and intellectually shallow, “fashionable” novels (373). The models whom the artist typically favors are versatile imitators who artificially create the scenes themselves, whose features the artist tweaks (375). He indeed works to create certain stereotypes appropriate for a piece, as dictated to him by other creators, thus subscribing himself to the notion of type.

As the story comes to a close, the Monarchs teeter upon the edge of desperation and attempt to stifle their bourgeois personalities, endeavoring to lend themselves to a greater usefulness through a display of humility; but the artist ultimately shuns their efforts (381). He had claimed the belief that “everything was to be sacrificed sooner than character” (375). Alas, though the Monarchs could not inspire him, they had remained to that moment stalwart adherents to themselves, in spite of their altered circumstances and environment. While their superior air may be rightly criticized, they serve as examples of genuine personalities, “the real things”. They are what the artist lusts to imaginatively capture but fails to actually realize because of his hypocrisy.

“But somehow with all their perfections I didn’t easily believe them. After all they were amateurs, and the ruling passion of my life was the detestation of the amateur.” (pg. 370)

(From “The Real Thing” by Henry James)

After listening to the Monarchs talk about their past modeling experience, the narrator paints a mental image of the lives they may have once led. He imagines that they were sought after by photographers and admired by their peers, but somehow they have fallen from grace and landed on hard times. In need of money, they come to the narrator’s studio seeking employment. Still, the couple’s own assertions that they had been photographed “immensely” do not quite convince the narrator (369). Stating that he is governed by the principle of not associating with amateurs in his business, his most obvious response would have been to turn them away without a second’s hesitation. Clearly, they haven’t had any actual experience, strengthened by the fact that they do not still possess any photographs of themselves. 

Hiring Mr. and Mrs. Monarch is a contradiction to the narrator’s beliefs; he knows them to be amateurs, yet he hires them nonetheless and spends countless hours trying to make them suitable for his projects. Arguably, his time could be better spent using models who actually fit the parts, but the narrator desperately tries to move the Monarchs around and make them fit into his artistic visions. Why would the narrator spend so much time on a couple of amateurs unless he saw some potential in them? It’s not entirely convincing that he saw something budding in their characters; it is more likely that he felt sorry for them and wanted to help them through this rough patch in their lives. Though the Monarchs cost him time and effort during their time in his studio, the narrator’s attempt to make the situation work is an admirable one, especially when he admits that he was “content to have paid the price” (383).