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The Right Way With Reality: James's "The Real Right Thing" by J. P. Telotte, Georgia Institute of Technology In his discussion of James's story "The Real Right Thing," Krishna Vaid describes how the tale "conveys its point, about the sacredness of a writer's life and its irrelevance to a consideration of his writings, through the agency of the supernatural" (212). Vaid's mention of the supernatural as the primary narrative agent for this tale refers, of course, to the "ghost" of the novelist Ashton Doyne that apparently manifests itself to prevent his young friend George Withermore from writing his biography . I say he "apparently" appears because the anonymous third-person narrator never witnesses this manifestation; Doyne appears off-page, as it were, and his appearance is only intimated in the most ambiguous terms by one of the characters in the story. It is a visitation that is effectively doubly mediated and distanced from our own perspective. The significance of this distinction, and thus of the haunting and problematic vision it notes, rests, on the one hand, in its reminder of the many similar "ghosts" that haunt James's short fiction in his later period, and, on the other, in its pointed parallel to another problem of removed perception that dominates this story—Withermore's attempt to write Doyne's biography, to reconstruct a life 'from the paper trail a man has left behind. In the conjunction of the modes of approaching reality, which this supposedly supernatural vision and the act of writing imply, we might discern not only a basic tension informing this story, but also a larger concern with presences and absences and a desire—common to both readers and writers—to close the gap between the two, for it is a gap that informs much of James's fiction and gives the reason to his recurrent "ghosts." Of major moment in much of James's canon is the relationship that word and vision have to the problem of perceiving and fashioning reality into a work of art. A most obvious example can be found in The Turn of the Screw, the two primary concerns of which are the questions of whether or not the governess actually sees the ghosts of Peter Quince and Miss Jessel, as she claims, and also of how we should react to her written tale, which comes to us as a kind of performance. A narrator reads it "for effect," as he says, to an audience that stands in for us, occupying our place in the hearing of this ghost tale. With less narrative complexity, James's In the Cage achieves a similar effect. Its heroine employs both language and sight to piece together her vision of reality from which she remains "barred off," merely a spectator, a reader like us. The words on which she so heavily depends—the telegrams she receives /intercepts—however, constitute only an incomplete thought at best, literally only half a correspondence, the absent part of which she—much like the readers of the tale—must reconstitute from a mix of the real and the imagined, of present messages and absent ones. What she observes from her telegrapher's station and draws upon to supplement the words she intercepts is itself obstructed by the bars comprising her "cage." Consequently, this "focus of divination ," as James only half ironically terms her, serves to embody a certain limited form of physical and intellectual perspective , one that appears common to both the reader and the writer—the two roles the telegrapher effectively tries to fill. What In the Cage clearly emphasizes, then, is just how much the world around us takes its perceived form from our own contributions. In effect, it suggests how much of the artist there is even in the reader and what limitations attend both roles. Tony Tanner has described the manner in which James's work follows in a long tradition of American fiction, as it underscores "how tenuous, arbitrary, and even illusory, are the verbal constructs which men call descriptions of reality" (27). Such a view of James's fiction calls for some qualification, however. This characteristic is not simply an American signature; it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 8-14
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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