Wednesday, 9 April 2014

H for a Haunting Tale by Henry James

Henry James (1843-1916), was a noted American born author. Born into a wealthy family he spent many years living between the United States and a number of European countries before settling down in London England in 1876. He was a prodigious author composing travel books, biographies, plays, articles on literary criticism, and a significant catalogue of fiction. Topically, Henry James also composed a number of memorable ghost stories, including The way it came which is briefly discussed below. (Incidentally the story was also known as The Friends of the Friends.)
Spoiler alert: you may prefer to read the story before reading the discussion!

Synopsis:
The way it came is a short story located within a collection of stories entitled Embarrassments. I have selected this story for discussion as it is intriguing for the fact that the ghost in the story remains an ever present side character. It is not a tale of terror, instead the inclusion of the ghost into the story seems entirely matter-of-fact. Notably, the story details the progression of an indirect relationship between two individuals, one male and one female, who share a common life event; that of having observed a doppelganger of a parent at the moment of their death, but who fail to meet in life. The story is written in first person detailing the views and observations of a female protagonist who is acquainted with both individuals and who is engaged to the male character. The focus of the story is curious in a number of manners, especially the way that it focuses primarily upon what doesn't occur rather than what does; that being a direct meeting between the two individuals who share the common life event. The climax of the story peaks when it finally appears as though a successful meeting of the two individuals will occur as arranged by the protagonist, only to be thwarted at the last minute in a pique of jealousy. When the object of the author's jealously presents her doppelganger to her fiancee at the moment of her death, intimated as resulting from the final failed arranged meeting, the ghost in the story manifests, leading to a termination in the relationship as the protagonist can no longer compete for the attentions of her lover when he has eternal access to the deceased female supporting character. The absence of any character names within the tale serves to distance the reader from the story despite the focus imposed by the first person point of view, which forces the reader to consider the reliability of the narration and to make their own mind up as to the believability of the tale.

Discussion:
Notably, this tale was published in 1896, just a few short years following the death of Sir George Tryon in 1893, and whose death remains part of British folklore. Briefly, allegedly the doppelganger of Sir George Tryon was observed by a number of witnesses to silently pass through the drawing room of the family home at the moment of his death thousands of miles away (1). Given the sensational nature of this event, it seems highly plausible to envision the tale of the death of Sir George Tryon as inspirational in setting the composition of The way it came with a writing style chosen deliberately to force the reader to make their own decision regarding the validity of the events described. One wonders what Henry James made of the tale of Sir George Tryon!

1. Christina Hole (1950). Haunted England: A survey of English ghost-lore
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 This blog post was written in the spirit of the April 2014 A-Z Challenge whereby a post is written every day during the month of April (with the exception of Sunday). The theme of each post is meant to correspond with a letter of the alphabet in sequential order. Tomorrow's post will be on I. For details and to visit the A-Z Challenge website, click here.

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