Analysis of Henry James’s Europe

“Europe,” originally published in the story collection The Soft Side, is a useful encapsulation in short story form of the symbolic use of Europe that Henry James had employed so successfully in the novella Daisy Miller and later in a number of his novels. The tale opens with a nameless and now expatriate American male character who, during his visits to his family in Boston, followed with amused interest the lives of the three Rimmle sisters and their mother, Mrs. Rimmle. Introduced to the Rimmles by his sister-in-law, the narrator confesses that in the long hall of his memory, their collective story is worthy of an anecdote. Any reader the least bit familiar with James immediately grows alert: If the tale of these women merits nothing more in his memory than an anecdote, a parenthesis, will this narrator be trustworthy, or will we ultimately find him unreliable?

The narrator says that he enjoyed his visits to Brookbridge, a thinly veiled renaming of Cambridge. There, in a square white house with a neat brick walk, live the Rimmle family of women, Mr. Rimmle having passed on before the narrator entered the scene (although the narrator somewhat wittily places Mr. Rimmle’s birth around the time of the Battle of Waterloo). Having established his own youth at the time of meeting—and having established the Rimmles as the acme of New England culture and Puritanism—he begins the chronologically sequenced story of Rebecca (Becky), Maria, and Jane.

Henry James/Wikimedia

From the earliest time anyone can recall, Mrs. Rimmle has been telling her daughters that as soon as her health permits, she shall accompany them to Europe, where she had once traveled with her eminent husband. The promise of Europe dangles in front of these girls for decades, for Mrs. Rimmle’s health is never quite good enough. All three of the daughters have familiarized themselves with the idea of Europe, Becky, the literary sister, most of all. The scholar of the family, she has edited and translated all the letters from associates who praised her father’s many professional achievements. On first meeting the sisters, the narrator learns that since Mrs. Rimmle cannot be left alone, their idea is that Becky and Jane, the pretty sister, should be the first to go. The narrator, obliquely attracted to Jane, senses her submerged and restless passion. When he receives a letter from his sister-inlaw telling him that the trip never materialized, he feels sympathy for them and acknowledges his genuine feeling for the young women.

The years wear on; the narrator travels to Europe several times and continues to visit the Rimmles whenever he is in Boston. He refers to himself and his sister-in-law as “students” of the “case,” recalling the subtitle “A Study” in Winterbourne’s narrative about Daisy Miller. Although he jokes with his sister-in-law that the sisters should hasten their mother’s death, he privately admits that if only two could go, he would choose Maria as the one to stay, and if only one could go, he would choose Jane, who he thinks should burst free and go on her own. Then, without warning, he learns that Jane has gone and stubbornly refuses to leave Florence, Italy. Indeed, she intends to travel to Asia and has become a flirt. Moreover, says the sisterin-law, Becky is sending her money.

When the narrator travels to Boston, an unrecognizable Becky visits him—unrecognizable because she has so aged that she looks exactly like her mother. She surprises him with the news that Jane will never leave Europe, and Mrs. Rimmle, although alive, is dead. He finds Mrs. Rimmle looking like a mummy; she tells him Jane is dead and now Becky is going. To Europe? the narrator asks. But for Becky, Europe seems to have become a private Metaphor for death. Only the thought of it had kept her alive, and the implication is that with the realization that she will never see Europe, Becky has no reason to continue living. When he next visits, Becky is dead, but the shrunken mother remains seated in the midst of the shrinelike tributes to her husband. Maria looks even older than Becky had. The mother repeats to him that Jane will never come back and he imagines Jane in the flush of a second youth. The mother, now called a witch, says that Becky has gone to Europe. Clearly, then, the differing equations of Europe—with death by the mother and with sex and passion by the daughters, two of whom, failing to experience either, succumb to death literally or figuratively—reflect a discrepancy that the narrator reports but fails to understand. The mother has a terrible tale to tell, for after returning from Europe with her husband, she lived a death-in-life existence and tries to prevent her daughters from sharing her fate. But the exact nature of that fate—and marriage to the man whose presence still rules the house—can only be surmised by the reader, for the narrator, who classifies the women as so many museum specimens, can never fathom that even he has missed the point.

James, Henry. “Europe.” In American Short Stories. 4th ed. Edited by Eugene Current-Garcia and Walton R. Patrick. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1982.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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