Review: A Tragedy of Error by Henry James

Genre: short story
Published: 1864 (February)
Available online: here

Discovering a hitherto unknown work by your favorite author has to be one of the most amazing things that can happen to a person. It is what happened to Leon Edel, Henry James' biographer and the guy who unearthed this short story, James' first published work of fiction. A Tragedy of Error was published anonymously in 1864, in the Continental Monthly, a publication that gave up the ghost shortly after that. Given these circumstances, and the fact that James was not proud of this piece and only referenced it obliquely in his memoirs, it is not very surprising that it remained unknown till 1953. And it sort of makes one wonder what other treasures are out there waiting to be found. (Byatt Quote of the Day? "Literary critics make natural detectives," natch.)

In any case, I am here to bring you good news and bad news about this story. The bad news is that 21-year-old Henry James was not the best of writers. The good news is that 21-year-old Henry James was not the best of writers. I don't know about you, but I find the idea of my literary hero having to work for his greatness very... reassuring. I might have felt differently if A Tragedy of Error was laughably bad. It is not. It is a story with a lurid plot: an unfaithful wife learns that her husband is soon to return to town. She hires a boatman to wait on him when he disembarks and kill him, but the boatman gets the wrong man and ends up killing her lover instead. But before you sneer at  it, this plot is somewhat redeemed by a series of elements that anticipate the later James:
  1. The dialogue: The center of this story and its longest episode is not what you'd expect. It's not the murder, it's not the series of errors that lead to the tragedy--it's the conversation between the lady and the boatman she hires. This is the scene we get to see in detail, the scene where a woman of high social status decides to hire a murderer and the way she brings it about. It is like James is saying: this, this conversation here, is what's interesting and illuminating. Not the murder, not the adultery, but the moral transaction that leads to them or results from them. And the conversation itself does have a certain flow and subtlety that the rest of the story lacks.
  2. The narrator's perspective: One of the most striking scenes in this short story is one where Hortense, the unfaithful wife, returns home in a shock, having received the telegram that announces her husband's arrival. She goes into her room but we don't get to follow her there. Instead we stay with a servant that watches her through the keyhole, sees her drinking and concludes she must be very upset. Why this artifice? It is because James' narrator is always tied up to a character's point of view, always limited. If there's no one watching, narration is impossible. And it's important who is watching too. James might have used Hortense here as his reflector, but then that would have compromised the whole effect of the moral conversation with the boatman. We needed to see Hortense's actions but be screened from some of her thoughts. That's why James needs the servants in this story.
  3. Beauty and morality: This will be one of the major Jamesian themes later: how the unity of goodness and beauty is broken, how sometimes beauty serves to disguise immorality. It appears here as well: "It was perhaps fortunate for Hortense's purpose at that moment—it had often aided her purposes before—that she was a pretty woman. A plain face might have emphasized the utterly repulsive nature of the negotiation."
Is this what I expected when I signed up to read the complete Henry James? Yes and no. No, in that I was expecting everything he wrote to be perfect and this is not even close to it. Yes, because I wanted to trace his evolution as a writer and I expected to find some elements of his later work in an embryonic phase from the first story, and that did happen. So, overall I am pleased with this beginning. 

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