The Best Henry James Stories Everyone Should Read
Are these Henry James’s best short stories and novellas?
Henry James (1843-1916) was a prolific writer of short stories and novellas – what he himself called ‘tales’ – and a number of them are widely read and studied. In this post, we’ve picked just five of James’s very best tales, and said a little bit about them.
‘The Beast in the Jungle’. In this longer tale from 1903 – it’s so long it is sometimes categorised as a ‘novella’ – Henry James uses his interest in delay (enacted so well by his meandering and clause-ridden syntax) to explore a friendship between a man and a woman which never turns into a romantic relationship because the man, John Marcher, fears that something terrible is going to befall him. His stalwart and patient female companion, May, stands by his side and tries to help him make sense of this mysterious and imprecise threat which he feels hangs over him. Will this ‘beast’ lurking in the jungle of his unconscious ever be unleashed? Perhaps James’s finest example of a subversion of the traditional love story.
‘The Figure in the Carpet’. An unnamed narrator reviews the latest novel by the author Hugh Vereker, and congratulates himself on having divined the true meaning of Vereker’s book. But at a party, he overhears Vereker telling the other guests that the narrator’s review was ‘the usual twaddle’. When Vereker discovers the narrator heard him badmouthing his review, he seeks to mollify him by telling him that nobody has managed to divine the true meaning of his work, but that there is an idea present in all of his novels, which he likens to the complex woven figure in a Persian carpet, which provides the ‘secret’ or ‘key’ to understanding all of his work. Spurred on by this, the narrator sets out to discover what ‘the figure in the carpet’ really is that will unlock the secrets of Vereker’s work. ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ invites numerous interpretations, all equally plausible. Is it a satire on the relationship between authors and critics, whereby James is mocking those critics and reviewers who aren’t really interested in understanding an author’s work, but merely want to advance their own careers? Perhaps, though the precise meaning of the story remains unknown…
‘In the Cage’. Like The Turn of the Screw below, this is a novella rather than a short story, but it’s one of Henry James’s very best shorter works, and has been the subject of a great deal of literary criticism and discussion. ‘In the Cage’ focuses on a young woman working in a London post office, where she is responsible for relaying telegraphic messages for various people – and, in particular, for two lovers, Captain Everard and Lady Bradeen, whose relationship will soon turn out to be not all that it seems…
‘The Altar of the Dead’. How can we truly remember the dead, those loved ones we have lost, so that they will not be forgotten as we go about our lives? This 1895 story addresses this concern, through George Stransom, the story’s protagonist, whose wife-to-be died before they could be wed. One day, George meets a woman in church who shares his views towards the dead – but George will find out a terrible secret about this woman which will cast his world into disarray.
‘The Turn of the Screw’. This 1898 novella is one of James’s longer tales – longer even than ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ but it falls short of being a full novel, so we feel its inclusion on this list of James’s best stories is justified. The story takes the form of a ‘found’ manuscript, which is shared to some friends around the fire; the manuscript is written by a governess at a house, Bly, and details her growing awareness of something mysterious at the house, surrounding the two children in her care. Is the governess a witness to the ghosts of some former workers at the house and their grisly past? Or is she highly suggestible, and everything she ‘sees’ is a product of her disordered mind? As ever, Henry James offers us a tale full of ambiguity – and this is one of the great examples of the ‘ambiguous ghost story’, as well as one of James’s finest tales.