One of Henry James’s most anthologized stories, The Real Thing was first published on April 16, 1892, in Black and White and later reprinted in the New York edition of James’s works (1909), a comprehensive, multivolume collection of James’s works. In this short tale, a nameless painter narrates his encounter with Major and Mrs. Monarch, impoverished gentlefolk who want to model for him in order to earn money. They are well acquainted with the high society the narrator depicts in his illustrations. It turns out, however, that having the “real thing” to paint from is a disadvantage; the painter returns to Miss Churm, a Cockney, and Oronte, an Italian ice vendor, as the models of his choice because somehow the Monarchs ruin his imaginative faculties and he is in danger of losing some of his contracted work. Although (or possibly because) they are used merely for appearance, they have a way of reasserting their large presence in his pictures that ruins the perspectivist proportions. The painter’s friend Jack Hawley, a “good counsel” who indulges in artistic jargon and clichés, advises him to dismiss the couple. In the memorable final scene, hierarchy is inverted in the studio when the aristocratic couple serve tea to the painter and his lower-class models, a humiliation they endure with surprising dignity before being given “a sum of money to go away.” Unable to paint Mrs. Monarch’s epiphanic “glance,” the narrator suffers “a permanent harm” done to his painterly craft, yet he is “content to have paid the price—for the memory.”
Critics have seen this story as a central document for the study of American realism and the issue of art imitating life. Susan Bazargan and others have pointed out that the Monarchs are empty symbols who lack the real power of aristocracy. Much has been written about the constraints of bourgeois economics and about representation in the context of 19th-century capitalism. Structuralist semiotics—the analysis of fiction in terms of literary conventions—and Lacanian psychoanalysis also have been applied successfully to this tale in which the painter/narrator’s grasp on reality proves so elusive. David Toor’s claim that the painter is an unreliable narrator has increased the ambiguity of interpretation but also made possible a comparison of visual as opposed to verbal information and other approaches that discuss the center of consciousness as negotiating between the two roles of painter and narrator. The fact that he is a mediocre artist sheds a more positive light on the humiliated Monarchs, who can, as Sämi Ludwig claims, in turn be associated with the superiority of a Christian kind of moral nobility. Moreover, James dramatizes their marriage as a genuine relationship, as a private matter between human minds that cannot be separated from the other characters who interact with them.
Bazargan, Susan. “Representation and Ideology in ‘The Real Thing.’ ” Henry James Review 12 (1991): 133–137.
James, Henry. “The Real Thing.” In The Novels and Tales of Henry James. Vol. 18. New York: Scribner, 1909.
Ludwig, Sämi. “ ‘We Should Like to Make It Pay’: Money, Power, and the Representation of Reality in Henry James’s ‘The Real Thing.’ ” In Reenvisioning the Short Story since 1890, edited by Abby Werlock and Alfred Bendixen. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
Toor, David. “Narrative Irony in Henry James’s ‘The Real Thing.’ ” University Review 34 (1967): 95–99.