Sunday, March 20, 2016

"A Tragedy of Error" (1864)

This story by Henry James has a few points of interest. Perhaps most significantly, it's his first story published, when he was 21—published without attribution, however, which may be the reason it was "lost" and then "rediscovered" in the 1950s. It's relatively primitive, but easily enough recognized as James. More interesting still, it's a kind of mystery or even horror story, and quite frank about the sins and transgressions it recounts. A woman has taken a lover while her husband is away at sea—more than a lover, a man she has fallen in love with, and wants to be with. As the story begins, she has learned that her husband is returning—indeed, will be back the very next day. She visits the docks of the unnamed French seaport where the story is set (it might be Le Havre) and finds a ruffian, whom she engages to murder her husband. As it turns out, and as you might easily have guessed—yes, I'm giving it all away now—through strained but believable enough confusions, the man murdered is her lover. Oops. That's about it. The longest scene covers making contact and closing the deal with the ruffian. The murder happens off stage, perhaps even soon after the last events of the story. There's a kind of doomed fatality to it that we know, penalty for indulged sexuality. It's even a bit of a cliche, and may have been then too. It's never graphic, but it's not coy either, and in that way strikes me as more candid than typical of its Victorian times about such behaviors. At the same time, all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed in terms of who gets punished: only the guilty, and all of the guilty. As usual in a moral universe, the innocents are spared, if not rewarded. It's recognizably James in its language, but even more in the perverse way it riffs on conventions of the novel of manners, focused on the ends of marriage. But not ends of marriage this way. It's less often the case that adultery and murder plots are injected at all in those stories, let alone made the subject. In that way it's nothing like a story of courtship and much closer to instructive morality. But the artful way it depends on misunderstandings and miscommunications is pure manners. Plus, even though James was only 21 when this was published, there is already an unmistakable urbanity to his voice. Interesting curiosity.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 32 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a cross between An American Tragedy and the Velvet's "The Gift."