30 pages 1 hour read

Henry James

The Real Thing

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1892

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Real Thing”

“The Real Thing” by American novelist Henry James first appeared in American newspapers and was the titular story in James’s 1893 collection The Real Thing and Other Stories. The satirical story was introduced to British audiences in 1892 through the semi-monthly Black & White, a popular periodical that supplemented text with simple, single-color illustrations in black and white.

Divided into four sections, “The Real Thing” is a philosophical meditation on the relationships between life and art, object and imagination. Through a middle-class artist and his unexpected upper-class models, the story thematically explores Social Hierarchy in Late 19th-Century England, Perception and Authenticity in Artistry, and Aesthetics Versus Ethics.

This study guide cites the Kindle edition of Selected Stories by Henry James, published by Dover Publications in 2017.

The unnamed narrator, an artist skilled in portrait painting and illustration, initially anticipates being commissioned for a double portrait when a well-dressed couple, named Major and Mrs. Monarch, approaches him. Due to their good manners and expensive clothes, the artist initially thinks the couple wants to hire him to paint their portrait. In learning they have been sent by Claude Rivet, a landscape painter, the narrator realizes that the Monarchs wish to be hired as models for his “pot-boilers,” or artistic work that functions to pay the artist’s bills rather than express artistic merit. The narrator has made his living on drawing magazine illustrations for Cheapside, which has afforded him “fortune” but not “fame.” In having lost their financial means, the Major admits that they need work to survive. The narrator observes that the Monarchs would be better suited for advertisements than art.

Although the artist is intrigued by the couple’s genteel sensibilities and feels a measure of empathy toward them and their unexpected poverty, he is unsure of their potential as models. His faithful model—a cockney girl named Miss Churm—has been an ideal collaborator. As a working-class East London native, Miss Churm can easily assume any pose, and her imperfections are often exactly what the artist needs. The artist doesn’t see such a quality in the Monarchs. In fact, the thought of donning “general use” costumes puts off the inflexible Monarchs, and they insist on wearing their own garments.

Despite his hesitation, the narrator hires the Monarchs in preparation for an important upcoming project, a novel titled Rutland Ramsay. If the artist is successful with his initial submissions, he may be commissioned to work on the novel’s entire series. Mrs. Monarch has experience posing for photography, and the artist reasons that the pair authentically represent the upper social classes explored in the book: They are “the real thing” (148). His doubts about the couple become quickly confirmed, however, when their persistent presence in his studio is much more of a hindrance than a help. He finds himself constantly frustrated, as the Monarchs disrupt the crucial composition of his carefully-crafted tableaus.

Mrs. Monarch criticizes Miss Churm, spurning the young woman’s lack of sophistication and questioning the artist’s decision to use a commoner as his ideal model. But Miss Churm continues to exhibit her talent for adaptability, transforming into whatever is needed most, such as a Russian princess or romance heroine. Major Monarch attempts to be useful, yet Mrs. Monarch remains “insurmountably stiff,” unable to recreate herself in any appealing manner. The artist is frustrated with his inability to depict the couple with proportional accuracy and concludes that Miss Churm is a more valuable model.

When the narrator tries to diffuse the tension by suggesting that Miss Churm make them all tea, the young woman recoils at the sudden implied demotion in her status from talented model to pantry servant. It is then a perfect coincidence that an Italian street vendor named Oronte unexpectedly appears to ask for work. Although Oronte does not speak English, the narrator takes him on as both model and housekeeper, an unexpected twist that proves to be advantageous for both parties. The Monarchs believe that the drawings of Oronte are inferior because they are not representative of him. However, Oronte shows that art is not dependent on a person being “the real thing,” but rather on a combination of qualities, including imagination, talent, and adaptability.

The narrator launches into illustrations for the first novel of Rutland Ramsay and attempts to use the Monarchs as models. In spite of the pair’s physical resemblance to the upper-class characters in the book, he is frustrated with the results. The artist turns to Jack Hawley, a fellow painter and friend who has recently returned to England with “a fresh eye” (155), for a critique of the work. In turn, Hawley deems the Monarch portraits as rubbish. To further complicate matters, the publisher’s artistic advisor agrees with Hawley’s sentiments, returning initial drafts with poor reviews.

After having spent extended time with the Monarchs, the artist finally decides to discard them as subjects. He chooses Oronte as the hero, explaining to Major Monarch that keeping him on would ruin the project. The Monarchs realize that Miss Churm and Oronte have usurped them as lead models. Rather than feel defeated, they accept their fate with grace and humility. As Major Monarch leaves the studio, the artist expects he will never see the pair again. However, a reversal of roles soon follows as the Monarchs offer him their services as attendants instead. Although apprehensive, the narrator accepts this arrangement: “If my servants were my models, my models might be my servants” (161). Mrs. Monarch’s meek gesture of picking up a dirty rag from the floor is testament to her accepting her new role as an attendant.

However, observing the upper-class Monarchs attending to his dirty dishes and serving tea is unbearable. The narrator pays the Monarchs to leave for good. Although he secures the series contract for Rutland Ramsay, the artist’s reputation is permanently damaged. Despite the professional blow, the artist does not regret temporarily employing the Monarchs: “I am content to have paid the price—for the memory” (161).