Henry James' The Aspern Papers

1051 words - 4 pages

Henry James' The Aspern Papers

The Aspern Papers by Henry James illustrates a classic opposition throughout the story: the underestimation of the old by the young. The narrator, Aspern’s publisher, sets himself to the task of retrieving several mysterious “papers” from a former lover of his idol, and goes in with the easy confidence of a young man who never dreams that anyone, much less an elderly lady, could be not one, but in fact several, steps ahead of him at all times in his hunt for literary gold. The relationship between Miss Bordereau and the narrator is that of the cat and the mouse, with the narrator believing he is the cat, and Miss Bordereau knowing that she has the upper hand by the simple fact of possession. The narrator is certain the love letters exist, but Miss Bordereau has no intention of turning over her private affairs to an impudent stranger who does not even have the decency to be straightforward and ask her about the letters– instead he concentrates on her niece, Miss Tina, and in effect seals his own destiny with that choice, leading to the option of marriage or losing the papers completely.

From the first meeting between the narrator and Miss Bordereau, it seems that the old woman has a very clear idea of the character of Aspern’s publisher and knows precisely what he is after. Although the narrator has some doubts as to the success of his admiration for her garden, her niece, and her home, stating that “She listened to me in perfect stillness and I felt her look at me with great penetration,” overall he never doubts his eventual success until his final defeat at Miss Bordereau’s deathbed (James, 16). He does try to act natural and jovial in her presence, but there is always an underlying tension in their relationship and in their conversations, like they are both dancing around an unsaid subject– which, at least in the narrator’s case, they are! I think that if Miss Bordereau had thought it would get rid of him, she would have told him directly that, yes, she had the papers, and no, she had no intention of giving them up. However, because their relationship actually began with Miss Tina’s terse reply to the narrator’s associate, telling him that under no circumstances were the two Bordereau’s interested in any nonsense as frivolous as a dead author’s romantic entanglements. This response comes back to haunt the narrator as he buries himself deeper and deeper in intrigue to keep his true identity a “secret” from Miss Bordereau. When they converse, the narrator is on his toes and very aware of the effect of every word, while Miss Bordereau throws out tidbits to entice him into an indiscreet comment or demand for the papers. For example, she deliberately declines to give him a receipt for his rent payment, prompting the narrator to conclude “She had given me a part of her house, but she wouldn’t add to that so much as a morsel of paper with her name on it” (James, 27). While she is...

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