The Aspern Papers is a novel by Henry James, which he published initially in The Atlantic Monthly in 1888. The main character of The Aspern Papers is unnamed, likewise the governess in the novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The Aspern Papers is a renowned tale by Henry James, which takes place in Venice. The narrator is the main character, a historian, literary critic and commentator. He is obstinate to find the precious papers of a great poet, Jeffrey Aspern, in an ancient Venitian palace where two ladies live: Juliana Bordereau and her niece Tina. The themes of obsession and possession are present in both James’s novels. Indeed, the writer’s addiction to possessing the papers leads him to bewilderment and insanity.
Analysis of The Aspern Papers by Henry James
Possession and disillusionment
The Aspern Papers is a mystery story, and tense and dramatic tones characterise the novel. The psychological conflict between the narrator and Juliana Bordereau is similar to that between the governess and the ghost in The Turn of the Screw. The craving for possession of the writer harms him with a consequent loss of his self-possession. Nevertheless, in the end, all his efforts and distress are vain, like trying to grab the wind. The conscious disillusionment of the critic will defeat his initial confidence since he will realise the futility of his acts and efforts. The antagonism between Juliana and the narrator aims to possess the historical truth in a verbal conflict about the reliability and sovereignty of their opinions. Literary history is one of the pivots of the novel.
Inspiration for The Aspern Papers by Henry James
Henry James is keen to highlight that the historical romance regarding Jane Clairmont inspires this tale’s origin. Clara Mary Jane Clairmont was a writer, stepsister of Mary Shelley and mother of Allegra, one of Lord Byron’s daughters. An American literary historian believed that Jane Clairmont owned some papers of Percey Bysshe Shelley, a renowned English Romantic poet.
A deserted life
The narrator’s character emphasises his expertise in academic mastery, editorial talents and artistry. His first move inside the old and decaying Bordereau palace is to reflourish the deserted garden. The lifeless and secluded existence of the two ladies finds its reflection in the decadent manor, where a silent stillness and inertia are the principal ornaments of the place. The green shades covering her eyes of Juliana have the function of protection from the outside world and hide her untamed personality. The green colour is a recurrent presence in the novel because the box containing the Aspern papers is also green.
The garden of The Aspern Papers by Henry James
The Aspern Papers is a novel full of symbolic references. An example is the changes in the garden, representing the changes abrupted in the lives of the two ladies. The writer’s intention to move to the palace is concealed by his obsession with restoring the deserted garden. Indeed, his fixation on possession and control is already evident when he takes care of the green area of the mansion. His need for control over literal history manifests in embellishing the garden and sending flowers to the ladies. He is very confident about his knowledge, influence and creativity. The narrator uses the garden as a place to allure the two women in different ways. He seduces Miss Tina, the niece of Juliana, in the garden, and he enchants Juliana to involve her in his fondness for historical records and literal research.
In The Aspern Papers by Henry James, Lady Juliana Bordereau represents a muse and lover of the poet Jeffrey Aspern, the idol of the literary critic. The narrator is surprised to discover that Juliana has lost her enchantress, concealing her eyes with a green bandage, which functions as a mask. Henry James describes Juliana when she stands in front of the writer “she had over her eyes a horrible green shade which served for her almost as a mask…At the same time it created a presumption of some ghastly death’s-head lurking behind it.” The narrator is disappointed at the sight of Juliana, and he describes her with the words: “The divine Juliana as a grinning skull – the vision hung there until it passed. Then it came to me that she was tremendously old – so old that death might take her at any moment, before I should have time to compass my end.” In his sight, lady Borquereau is no anymore the divine muse and love of Jeffrey Aspern, his idol.
Disillusionment in The Aspern Papers by Henry James
The narrator, with time, while living in the decadent palace, becomes aware of his repressed instincts, especially when he has meetings with Miss Tina. He falls into a state of disillusionment when Juliana catches him in the act of his searching the famous papers. After lady Bordereau accuses him of being a “publishing scoundrel”, she undergoes an experience of an impulse of desire, which drives the writer to pursue the Aspern papers tirelessly. The publisher realises his inability to interpret the past and his failure to self-knowledge. In particular, he becomes a victim of his acts during the courting of Tina Bordereau, complicating the situation when she falls in love with him. Since he lacks social interactions, he feels a vulnerability to social relations.
The relinquished authority of the publisher
The publisher’s avidity for knowledge provokes only damages in the life of ladies Bordereau. He becomes responsible for the hastening of the end of Juliana and the permanent destruction of the papers. The publisher loses authority and control once the situation precipitates in a direction not foreseen by him. The destruction symbolises his failure of knowledge and power in the lack of human love and empathy. His existence has been asocial and centred around intellectual mastery. Everything becomes invisible in his sight. Only the precious papers have been the object of his passion and love. His only consolation becomes a portrait of a young Aspern, his idol and hero, which Tina gives him. The publisher embraces the loss of his obsession, which has hunted him for several years.
Confusion and contradiction
In The Aspern Papers by Henry James, confusion and contradiction are ways the author aims to disorient the reader. Henry James is the only weaver of the truth and deep understanding of the text. Also, in The Turn of the Screw, James doesn’t miss to accomplish his desire to confuse the reader. The author is the perfect reader of his novels and the only bearer of the secrets of those books. The unsent letters of the governess in The Turn of the Screw are similar to the burnt papers in The Aspern Papers. The narrator of The Aspern Papers is unnamed, like the governess in The Aspern Papers. The two main characters are obsessed with something and lose control of their perspectives as soon as the turn of events becomes dramatic.
Papers and letters
The Aspern Papers by Henry James papers and letters are a common and central theme as well as in The Turn of the Screw. Letters are unread, unanswered and burnt; similarly, documents, even though they are precious manuscripts, are unread and burnt. This is a metaphor for the control of sharing knowledge and truth. Not everybody is entitled to “know” the secrets and the truth because it could be destructive. The inaccessibility to the mysteries and profound knowledge is what the reader has to accept. The publisher cannot access all the areas of the ancient Venetian palace, consisting of fifty rooms, and although he improves the garden, he cannot obtain the object of his obsession and desire. The knowledge of the past is veiled and untouchable. He is left with his dream and defeat. Access to the enlightening truth has the consequence of death and destruction. Silences and omissions in James’s novels are a way to prevent readers and literary critics from “destroying” the magical world of imagination and mystery. The ambiguous atmosphere of the two stories is protected and carries an unrevealed essence.
Novelties in The Aspern Papers
Juliana Bordereau remains “impenetrable”, but she has a “fuller vision” of the publisher than he had of her. The two ladies live in complete seclusion, having lost every contact with the external world. The dilapidated palace is so big that it could be possible to get lost. Juliana and Tina are new types of American absentees because they lost since longtime their native marks culture. The narrator believes that beauty is in everything Jeffrey Aspern wrote and intends to bring this beauty to light.
The motionless shutters of the ladies’ apartments symbolise their eyes being consciously closed. He describes the place as “brutally neglected”. Juliana keeps “her things” locked up. Hence the papers are under her supervision and protection until her very last day of life. The narrator describes Juliana as a sarcastic, profane, and cynical old woman. The narrator introduces himself as a commentator, a critic, a historian and a writer. His interest is towards great writers, philosophers and poets of the past.
The miniature of Jeffrey Aspern portrays him as “a young man with a remarkably handsome face, in a high-collared green coat and a buff waistcoat.” Juliana loves the past, but she doesn’t like critics. Her knowledge opinion is that “the truth is God’s, it isn’t man’s; we had better leave it alone. Who can judge of it? – who can say?” After the destruction of the papers, Miss Tina evolves into a “plain, dingy, elderly person”, as the narrator describes her in the last memory of her. He will always be unable to bear his loss of the precious Aspern papers.