Commentary by Karen Bernardo
It is frequently difficult to pin down what a work by Henry James is about, not because his stories have no plot, but because they are so multi-layered that the plot is only one part of the reading experience. This is clearly demonstrated by his short story, “The Real Thing.” On the surface, James’ story deals with the attempt of the story’s narrator, an artist, to find suitable models for a dime novel he’s illustrating. But on another level, the story is about appearance versus reality, pride versus shame, and the fate of the victims of a society that trades in appearances alone.
Our artist regularly employs two models who are excellent actors: a lower-class English girl, Miss Churm, who can convincingly portray anyone from a street urchin to a queen, and a flashy Italian named Oronte who is just as versatile. However, the narrator experiments with using a couple who are actually members of the English aristocracy, simply down on their luck and desperate for work. In other words, they should be perfect models for his drawings of “quality” English people because they are “The Real Thing.”
Unfortunately, however, the Monarchs do not in fact make good models at all. Certainly they capture the essence of the English aristocracy, but they have no idea how to make themselves look like anything except themselves. Even in those parts of the story in which members of the aristocracy are actually featured, the illustrations of the Monarchs look stiff and posed. Arguably, there’s a logical reason for this; in the couple’s wealthy days, photographers were constantly taking their picture, and when asked to smile for the camera one invariably stiffens. They’re used to it.
But there is a deeper, more profound reason the Monarchs cannot represent “just anybody.” The artist, himself, does not feel they are “just anybody.” Because he is not of the aristocracy himself, he is more than a little in awe of them; in fact, whenever he tries to work them into a picture, they invariably appear oversized—fully seven feet tall—because metaphorically that is the way commoners in England regard aristocrats. On the other hand, when Miss Churm dresses up in an elegant costume, she automatically becomes a lady, even though it is a role. The artist sees her both in her role, and, beyond the role, as his equal; both these conditions are necessary in order for him to paint a person the viewer cares about. The artist has to be able to empathize, not only with the imaginary character he’s trying to depict, but with the real flesh-and-blood person inside the costumes and stage paint.
This is impossible in the case of the Monarchs. It is not that the artist has such a tight deadline hanging over his head that he can spare neither the time nor the inclination to really get to know the Monarchs. It is more that their social class has removed them from anything he can understand. The fact that they have been so reduced in financial circumstances that they are literally begging from him makes no difference. He can hardly bring himself to ask them to make tea for the other people in the studio—something he does not hesitate to ask of his other models. The Monarchs speak and walk and carry themselves like the born aristocrats they are, and they are useless as models because the artist cannot make them look like anything else. He is illustrating cheap dimestore romances and mysteries and adventure stories, and he needs people who can look poor, not necessarily people who really are; he needs people who can look passionately in love, not people who are so devoted to one another that even in the most humiliating of situations they cannot bear to be apart. An artist can only draw appearances; he cannot draw motivation or essence. The Monarchs are “the real thing”, but the stories he’s illustrating are not.
His publishers notice the oddness of the illustrations featuring the Monarchs, and our artist nearly loses his commission; regretfully, he decides to give his lordly models a small sum of money and let them go. We don’t know what happens to them; we don’t know if they starve in the street. We know only that the artist’s friend Hawley feels that their influence did his friend a “permanent harm” by getting him into “false ways.” An ironic ending for a story about the essence of truth.
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