Selected Tales of Henry James

The Artist's Quest: Real Truth Beyond Real Life

The Real Thing was written by Henry James in 1891. According to his notebook entry on February 22, 1891, the idea for the story came in the form of an actual incident divulged by his friend George du Maurier. James juxtaposes an upper-class couple, who have no imagination, with a poor, unrefined girl who has an understanding of the artist's purpose. The narrator is an artist who draws in black and white for magazines that print short stories. He employs these people as models. For the artist, illustrating stories is a way to make money, not a form of art. This is explained when he says "My 'illustrations' were my pot-boilers; I looked to a different branch of art -- far and away the most interesting it had always seemed to me -- to perpetuate my fame." In fact, he would prefer to be known as an artist as opposed to an illustrator of stories.

James writes "The Real Thing" to validate his theory that art is not an exact copy of life, but a reproduction that goes beyond to reveal the 'truth' in reality. The narrator of the story expresses "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." When...

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