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Henry James: Appearance vs. Reality

One of the characteristics of Realism, in American literature at least, is the ironic use of perceptions of “appearance” vs. “reality.” With this in mind, Henry James’s “The Real Thing” and “The Beast in the Jungle” are two works wherein such characteristics can be shown to operate as James employs cleverly woven twists of “appearance” and “reality” in each of the plots.

In James’s “The Real Thing,” the plot is centered on an unnamed artist and his interactions with two sets of models: the Monarchs (members of genteel society), and Miss Churm and Oronte (members of the working class). The ironically named Monarchs are a couple who appear as though they have “ten thousand a year” but whose lives diverge dramatically from the literal definition of a monarch. Upon introduction to the artist, they unwittingly deceive him into initially assuming that they are interested in commissioning a portrait; in fact, the Monarchs are seeking work as sitters. The case of mistaken identity is further compounded by the artist who pretends to be a “great painter of portraits” but who is actually an illustrator whose depictions of nobility constitute his main source of income – his “pot-boilers.” James’s introductory interplay of character identity with appearance and reality serves as a clever backdrop for the story where reality conflicts with appearance.

While their outward social appearance and actions have an “indefinable air of prosperous thrift” and personify that of high-class society, the Major and Mrs. Monarch are actually penniless and no longer members of the genteel sect. But the Monarchs are unable to resolve their “appearance” of high society with their “reality” of financial destitution, and remain psychologically entrapped in a self-imposed netherworld of pseudo-culture and pseudo-class. Insistent upon being treated as members of the high society to which they no longer belong, the Monarchs also present a conflict of appearance and reality for the artist because he is forced to allow them the social deference of portrait sitters, yet pay them as models (viewed as their “superior but not their equal”). The complexity of appearance vs. reality is further illustrated when the artist realizes that while Major and Mrs. Monarch may appear to be the “real thing,” he is unable to transform their outward reflection of nobility onto his canvas without sacrificing his art – his life’s work. The artist finds the seemingly...

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