Painting People: Henry James’ “The Real Thing” (1892)

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. You can read the story online for free here.

Writers will sometimes tie their themes to a particular element of story-telling such as character or setting. (They will often tie their themes to plot as well, but this is a given—at least for good stories.) When a writer ties his theme to a particular story element, that element gives the reader a lens which brings the theme into much sharper focus. In his short story, “The Real Thing,” Henry James uses characterization—in terms of both description and personality—as a means of focusing on his theme. The result is that we “see” the abstract theme in more concrete terms, which both strengthens its affect and, perhaps more interesting, displays the author’s skill as a writer.

James uses character description in a purposeful manner with several layers. First, it is important that James “paints” his characters well because his story’s narrator is a painter. Thus, it’s no wonder that the narrator would give us very descriptive images of the models he engages for portraits. The first purpose served by describing characters is to characterize the narrator as a painter with a sharp eye. (The narrator, by the way, never describes himself; he also never describes a fellow painter who visits him later in the story; James, as author, thus hints at the concept of the distance of the artist in the artist’s work.) Character description also serves purposes of contrast. The narrator’s two models, who offer him “the real thing” that they think models should have, look like idyllic people (though a little older than what we might ascribe to the ideal). By contrast, the painter’s “uglier,” more experienced models look almost like caricatures or subjects of Norman Rockwell paintings with so much expression on their faces that they can look like anything. This contrast comes into sharp focus toward the end of the story when the two idyllic figures return to the studio to see the narrator utilizing the two ugly figures. We see the two ugly figures in a dramatic and interesting pose, but we see the idyllic figures as we’ve always seen them: pretty, upright, proper—in a word, uninteresting. Both sets of models have, at different points in the story, thought and said disparaging things about the others, but it means little to the artist, our narrator painter, whose only concern is which models serve him best. Character description thus adds tension to the story as well, for it is clear that each set of models are vying for the artist’s attention via their looks.

This leads us to consider the theme and its relationship with the character descriptions. James alludes to his theme when the narrator says, “A studio was a place to learn to see, and how could you see through a pair of feather-beds?” (142). Even in this somewhat abstract statement, we find another characterization of the idyllic couple with “the real thing”: he calls them feather-beds. While feather-beds have all sorts of enjoyable qualities—soft, stable, luxurious, conforming to the body—they make terrible windows, or telescopes…or artist’s eyes. In short, we can’t see anything through a feather-bed. The theme of “The Real Thing” is rather bold: Art is not about the real, but the ideal. I say it’s bold because James handles it boldly. Throughout the story, the narrator observes the idyllic couple. He first thinks he can make use of them as models for the more proper characters in the novel he’s illustrating. The problem is that their body lines are so tight and upright that he has no wiggle-room as an artist. An artist is not a documentarian. We do not record what we see: we interpret what we see. Some of what we see is incredibly useful for this, and some of what we see needs to be unseen if we hope to remain creative. The story’s painter-narrator is not a portrait maker. Photography is now part of the world’s artistic atmosphere, so painters’ portraits are not in as high demand. Instead, painters return to the dramatic part of painting: capturing life, story, motivation. The narrator’s idyllic models only serve the purpose of photography—holding very still with little to no expression. The narrator’s ugly models, on the other hand, are so full of life that they can twist, mold, and bend to the narrator’s purpose, which, given the nature of a novel with forward-moving scenes, is always changing.

There are two parts to James’ theme: the first part is shame; the second part is idealism. The parts tie together subtly. First, the idyllic couple feels shame for serving the purpose of anything but models for the pristine. The narrator finds himself so distracted by their beauty that he can’t use them for anything but that either. The problem is that, because he is so distracted, he overemphasizes their features, such that they often appear a foot, or more, taller than they really are—a six-foot woman and a seven-foot man. At last, he sees use for the man as a model for a servant rather than a gentleman, but the narrator worries he’ll hurt the man’s feelings if he suggests this, and the narrator really doesn’t want to spend time dealing with that. On the note of servitude, the narrator often expects his models to be servants, too: they’re tasked with simple things, like preparing tea for themselves and him. The idyllic couple can’t think of themselves as servants. Toward the story’s end, they “stoop” to servitude, since they need money, but the narrator sees it’s no use for them—that they are ashamed—and charitably sends them away with some money.

The second part of the theme is idealism, which I touched upon earlier. The idyllic couple can’t imagine the ugly couple as models for princesses or gentlemen…but the narrator can. Again, he is an artist, and his purpose is not to record nature—like a photographer, journalist, or documentarian—but to select from life and recreate it by his own interpretation. Thus, the narrator puts his ugly models in certain poses which serve his creative purposes, and by the end, we see nothing of the models’ original faces, but only the idyllic form the narrator intended. Do the ugly models mind? They do not. Why should they? They understand their purpose as models and they respect the purpose of the studio: “a place to learn to see” beyond what’s really there. The ugly models are not ashamed if the narrator does not use their faces or even their bodies as they are. The idyllic models, on the other hand, would be ashamed. Although the idyllic models offered the narrator “the real thing,” what the narrator actually needed was “‘the ideal thing’” (144), that quality of artistry in his ugly models that served the purposes of the studio, the painter-narrator, and the publishers and readers for whom he paints.

James’ “The Real Thing” defends the nature of art itself as a process of select recreation, rather than servitude to what is: in other words, the artist is not after the real thing; instead, the artist searches for the ideal thing and then, through his art, presents it to the world. It is a statement of artistic integrity when the narrator finally looks at the gentleman of his idyllic pair and says, “‘I can’t be ruined for you!’” (James 143)—that is, I cannot sacrifice my art to your feelings. James ties his theme to his character descriptions to solidify his theme: art is about the ideal, not the real. By “painting” characters with words for us, it elevates his own skill as an artist because he defends art in two realms—painting, the realm of the story’s events; and writing, the realm in which the story actually exists as literature. His theme stands out sharply by the story’s end, leaving us with the sense that we understand art the way the painter-narrator does: we see beyond the real thing and find ourselves exhilarated by the ideal thing.

My review: I thought it was clever that James made a painter the center of his story: I felt very aware that I was reading a painter, whose work we usually see. I enjoyed this artistic shock. As the story progressed, I wasn’t entirely sure what theme James would arrive at, so I kept on guard in case he was going to reject beauty itself as ideal. I was delighted when, instead, he rejected pretension and declared that beauty is ideal and is an act of select recreation, as my favorite author, Ayn Rand, puts it. James’ story is an excellent artistic commentary on art!

Favorite quotes:

  • “I feared my visitors were not only destitute but ‘artistic’—which would be a great complication.” (128)
  • “I didn’t easily believe in them. After all they were amateurs, and the ruling passion of my life was the detestation of the amateur.” (130)
  • “‘Oh, you think she’s shabby, but you must allow for the alchemy of art.’” (133)
  • “I adored variety and range, I cherished human accidents, the illustrative note; I wanted to characterise closely…” (135)

Work Cited

James, Henry. “The Real Thing.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 124-45. Print.

Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.

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