“The Real Thing” was published in 1892 in Black and White and is considered among Henry James’s finest short stories. The tale explores the complicated interplay of life and art, of object and imagination. The unnamed narrator is an illustrator and portrait painter whose encounter with an impoverished but indisputably upper-class couple, the Monarchs, changes his art for the worse. When they first appear, he expects a commission for a double portrait, but they want to earn money as models, since other jobs are closed to them as members of the upper class. Although he assesses their photographic realism as perfect for advertising, he agrees to use them as figures in his work. He cannot, however, transmute their impervious facticity: They are as they are, and illustration requires that the artist remake or complete the subject. Miss Churm and Mr. Oronte, the models he usually employs, seem unmistakably lower class but can be transformed into the characters needed for an illustration. The narrator wishes to help the Monarchs but seems flummoxed when confronted with their stolidity and with his inability to remake them, even as artistic representations of the upper class. In the end, however sympathetic he is to their poverty, he cannot endure the change in his style or the thought of employing them as his servants. He pays them to go away but lives with the memory and its unspoken lesson.
The story is one of reversals: The Monarchs have had a reversal of their fortunes and expectations in life. The artist pays his sitters, who would ordinarily pay him. Mrs. Monarch is, on the surface, more of a servant when asked to prepare tea for the artist and Mr. Oronte than the lower-class Miss Churm is in similar circumstances. The lower-class models better represent the noble class in art than do the upper-class models. Finally, the narrative reverses the reader’s expectation that a momentous life experience will have a positive effect on an artist’s work.
Critical attention, however, has focused on the teller of the tale. The narrator may belong to the class of Jamesian artist-failures; some have called this story a parable of mastery as it seeks to define the artist’s control over his subject in the conversion of the potential of reality into the realization of art. Others have seen in this tale a moral fable in which one man learns compassion as he negotiates the tensions among social class, artistic sensibility, and ethical rectitude. Some critics say the artist renounces his talent for the good of the Monarchs, while others suggest the artist reaches the limit of his talents as he finds he cannot remake them. Biographical critics believe that the story, with its origins in an anecdote told by George DuMaurier, expresses James’s fear that the material from which he made his fiction was beyond his control, that life might master him before he could master it through art. Others have proposed that James, in spite of saying that art shapes life, sees factual life as more solid and more important than the felt life of the imagination. The implications of the story, however, remain as mysterious as the title itself: Readers do not know if the Monarchs are, as the narrator states, the “real thing” or if the art made from imaginative incompleteness is the real thing. The ending, furthermore, remains as mysterious as that of James’s novel What Maisie Knew: The worth of the experience is never told.
James, Henry. Complete Stories. New York: Library of America, 1996.
Lackey, Kris. “Art and Class in ‘The Real Thing.’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 26 (1989): 190–192.
Sonstegard, Adam. “ ‘Singularly like a bad illustration:’ The Appearance of Henry James’ ‘The Real Thing’ in the Pot- Boiler Press,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 45 (2003): 173–200.
Wagenknecht, Edward. The Tales of Henry James. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984.
Whitsitt, Sam. “A Lesson in Reading: Henry James’s ‘The Real Thing,’ ” Henry James Review 16 (1993): 304–314.