Document Type


Date of Award



Henry James, Short stories

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

William B. Stein

Second Advisor

Christian P. Gruber

Third Advisor

Bernard Rosenthal


My dissertation presents the comic and catastrophic results of James’s characters’ mania for verbal deception. By focusing on the humorous ingenuity of James’s fictional presentations, my study illuminates the literary artistry in each story. Traditional interpretations of James's short fiction often overlook his satire, equating “The Master” with his finicky fictional personae. Thus, critics even more misguided than James’s own characters see Spencer Brydon’s search in “The Jolly Corner” as a “return to the womb” or a fictive vindication of James’s decision to live in Europe rather than America. As is especially evident in novels like The Awkward Age and The Sacred Fount, James continuously parodies the “art for art's sake” doctrine of Wilde, Pater, and other members of the British Esthetic Movement. Thus the sensitivity and sensibility of what he termed his “Central Intelligence” or narrator in each story represent not the acme of the artistic temperament, but the pose and imposture of a dandy and dilettante. Nevertheless, some critics persist in viewing James's stories as guides to experience, handbooks on life, or even parables of rebirth. Although James's use of the “fallible narrator” is a critical commonplace, few scholars seem willing to recognize or admit that seemingly urbane, erudite men like Spencer Brydon or his counterpart John Marcher in “The Beast in the Jungle” perpetrate just as many unreliable, capricious, and foolhardy schemes as the Governess and Mrs. Grose in “The Turn of the Screw.” My study illuminates James's reliance on pun, parody, conscious narrative plagiarism, double entendre, and outright nonsense, to expose his characters’ gullibility. These comic devices constitute the raw ingredients James employs to season and serve up the antics and inanities of his characters. For James, the true art of fiction resides in keeping a clear focus on his narrator's distortions. James always remains outside the body of each story, contriving the verbal elements which comprise the deceptive observations of his “Central Intelligence.” Throughout my paper, when I state that “James arranges,” or “James mingles,” or “James juggles,” this by no means implicates James in the comedy of his protagonist’s credulity. On the contrary, this divulges my central concern with the artistic process itself, as James selects, sorts, assembles, and arranges his fictional material. James assumes the role of the puppeteer, while his characters play the puppets themselves.

My own method of analysis is a patient, imaginative, fearless application of Logocentric critical techniques. I allow each story to dictate its own mode of criticism, developing my insights in response to James’s subtle play with language. After the introductory paragraph of each chapter in my dissertation, I immediately focus on the “setting” as reflected and refracted by James's narrator, then move to an analysis of the narrator's telltale habits of structuring experience in words. My criticism thus flows organically from my scrutiny of these two crucial aspects of the storyteller’s art. James’s crafty fiction forces the reader to follow his presentation and interpretation of his characters’ interpretations of experience. The coherence of my study (spanning both neglected early works, acknowledged later masterpieces, and including the frequently ignored tour de force “The Great Good Place”) emerges from James’s own consistent strategy for laying bare the sinister and shystering potential of English words and syntax.

James’s early stories reveal his humorous techniques in miniature, comprising essential background for the sophisticated comedy of his later fiction. His creation of the house as a theatre of sensibility and susceptibility emerges as the most basic of his comic strategies. James expands the “haunted” house of “The Ghostly Rental” into the Governess’ phantasmagoric Bly in “The Turn of the Screw,” remodels it again as the mausoleum at Weatherend in “The Beast in the Jungle,” then renovates it still further into Spencer Brydon’s jarring jolly corner. Likewise, Marco’s hastily constructed stone slab in front of Juno in “The Last of the Valerii,” represents a pagan analog to George Stransom’s re-consecrated holy table in “The Altar of the Dead.” Thus James's attention to setting and various crucial props, divulges an inflated equivalent of his characters’ aberrations and obsessions. He conveniently objectifies the idée fixé of each narrator. James's central personae see only what they have trained their minds to see. Their exploration of the artifacts of their own sensibilities elicits the crucial trope of all James’s Stories of the Supernatural. Each character haunts himself with misused language, becoming a victim of linguistic hallucination.