OWL Magazine Korea

Henry James’s “The Real Thing”

The debate over “the real thing” has been the subject of various philosophers’ arguments, each with their own philosophy. Plato explained “the real thing” through the concept of “Ideas,” while his disciple Aristotle defined “the real thing” with another concept.

There may still be various opinions on how to define “the real thing.” Henry James’s short story “The Real Thing” provides an opportunity to contemplate this notion.

Henry James lived from 1843 to 1916, and he wrote this work in 1892. Despite the temporal gap, we can still empathize with his work.

“Their appearance of being real actually limits the imagination.”

The central figure in “The Real Thing” is a painter. The plot revolves around the following:

The narrator, who is a painter, is approached by a handsome, typical noble couple one day, asking to be models for him. The painter agrees to use them as models, believing they are “the real thing.” However, after painting several canvases depicting the upper-class society, the painter realizes that his imagination is limited by the fact that they are considered “real.”

Deciding that the noble couple, who fit well into upper-class society, are unsuitable as real models, the painter resolves not to use them as models. Instead, he decides to use Miss Churm and Oronte, who are in no way like the real thing. Despite their unsuitability as models, the noble couple, having lost their value as models, offer to stay in the studio and maintain their livelihood, but the painter gives them some money and sends them away, concluding the story.

“What criteria determine what is real?”

This work questions what criteria determine “the real thing.” The story presents both the noble couple, who only possess appearance and status, and Miss Churm and Oronte, who worked as models. The charm they each possess is quite different.

Is the noble couple, who only possess appearance and status but are no longer able to maintain the facade of nobility, to be considered real? Or should Miss Churm and Oronte, who lack appearance and status but excel as models, be regarded as real? This work contains philosophical reflections on this question.

“Irony in the Story”

This work is introduced as a piece of irony. In the beginning, the noblewoman shows an attitude of disdain towards the servants, Miss Churm and Oronte. However, as the story progresses, the noble couple begins to feel that their value as models is decreasing and even offers to do the servants’ work to stay in the studio, which is seen as ironic.

Furthermore, another irony is found in the philosophical reflection on “which side should be called real?”

Lastly, the depiction of the unsuitable noble couple as a good literary subject is another irony.

“The Author’s Intention to Criticize British Society’s Superficiality”

The author’s intention is likely to criticize the prevalent superficiality in British society at the time. This work can be seen as a critique of the attitude that only values appearance and lacks the inner qualities to match.

“A Work of Psychological Realism”

This work is also considered a piece of psychological realism that was popular in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The characteristic of “psychological realism” is to depict and reproduce reality as it is.

In this work, the author attempts to depict the irrational social phenomena and the reality of urban society. Although James’s works are classified as realism because they were written before the emergence of modernism, they share many similarities with modernist works, which is why they are classified as such.

Another characteristic of psychological realism is the tendency to analyze human behavior based on inner motives.

Henry James’s “The Real Thing” provides food for thought even for us living in contemporary society. It offers us a chance to ponder what truly constitutes “the real thing.”

“The Real Thing”

  • Author: Henry James
  • Publication Date: April 16, 1892