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Mrs. Medwin

Mrs. Medwin

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Mrs. Medwin is a short story
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

 by Henry James
Henry James
Henry James, OM was an American-born writer, regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He was the son of Henry James, Sr., a clergyman, and the brother of philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James....

, first published in Punch
Punch (magazine)
Punch, or the London Charivari was a British weekly magazine of humour and satire established in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and engraver Ebenezer Landells. Historically, it was most influential in the 1840s and 50s, when it helped to coin the term "cartoon" in its modern sense as a humorous illustration...

in 1900. The story slyly satirizes
Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...

 fashionable society in fin-de-siècle England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

. The central characters are an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 brother and sister who both entertain and live off this society, which has grown bland and bored and almost exhausted.

Plot summary

Mamie Cutter is an American living in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

. She supports herself by getting questionable people into fashionable social circles
Social status
In sociology or anthropology, social status is the honor or prestige attached to one's position in society . It may also refer to a rank or position that one holds in a group, for example son or daughter, playmate, pupil, etc....

, in return for a fee. Her worthless but personable half-brother Scott Homer turns up at her apartment looking for a handout.

A particularly tough case for Mamie is a certain Mrs. Medwin, who is apparently beyond the pale even by the lax standards of current English society. But Scott comes to Mamie's rescue by charming the snooty Lady Wantrigde into inviting Mrs. Medwin to one of her exclusive parties. Mamie collects her fee and Scott becomes an unexpected social success.

Major themes

In his Notebooks
Notebooks of Henry James
The Notebooks of Henry James are private notes made by the Anglo-American novelist and critic. Usually the notes are of a professional nature and concern ideas for possible or ongoing fictions, but there are a number of personal notes as well...

James bestowed the adjective "cynical"
Cynicism , in its original form, refers to the beliefs of an ancient school of Greek philosophers known as the Cynics . Their philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and...

 on his idea for this story, and it's hard to disagree. Never did James describe English high society with a more sarcastic
Sarcasm is “a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter jibe or taunt.” Though irony and understatement is usually the immediate context, most authorities distinguish sarcasm from irony; however, others argue that sarcasm may or often does involve irony or employs...

 tone than in this worldly-wise tale of how jaded socialites will accept anything and anybody for the sake of an even slightly fresh experience.

Scott Homer puts it in his usual blunt way: "The bigger bugs they are the more they're on the lookout...for anything that will help them to live...They're dead, don't you see? And WE'RE alive." James endows Scott with enough charm to make his success with the "bugs" believable, and Mamie doesn't mind collecting the financial rewards. The story's brevity (under eight thousand words) and simplicity of style help keep its sardonic message from seeming clumsy or forced. The satirical magazine Punch
Punch (magazine)
Punch, or the London Charivari was a British weekly magazine of humour and satire established in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and engraver Ebenezer Landells. Historically, it was most influential in the 1840s and 50s, when it helped to coin the term "cartoon" in its modern sense as a humorous illustration...

was a perfect vehicle for this astringent view of hoity-toity social circles.

Critical evaluation

A critic is anyone who expresses a value judgement. Informally, criticism is a common aspect of all human expression and need not necessarily imply skilled or accurate expressions of judgement. Critical judgements, good or bad, may be positive , negative , or balanced...

s such as Clifton Fadiman
Clifton Fadiman
Clifton P. "Kip" Fadiman was an American intellectual, author, editor, radio and television personality.-Literary career:...

, Edward Wagenknecht
Edward Wagenknecht
Edward Wagenknecht was an American literary critic and teacher, who specialized in 19th century American literature. He wrote and edited many books on literature and movies, and taught for many years at various universities, including the University of Chicago and Boston University...

 and Robert Gale have been quite kind to this "little cynical comedy", as its author dubbed it. James handles his material with the lightest touch, never blundering into a ham-handed condemnation of social hypocrisy. Abundant humor makes it clear that James is unshockable and amused.

The idea for the tale came from a few bits of gossip, and the finished product shows how the thoroughly experienced novelist could turn the smallest hint into a minor masterpiece. Keeping the story as brief as possible for commercial and artistic reasons, James still gets his characters
Fictional character
A character is the representation of a person in a narrative work of art . Derived from the ancient Greek word kharaktêr , the earliest use in English, in this sense, dates from the Restoration, although it became widely used after its appearance in Tom Jones in 1749. From this, the sense of...

 into sharp outline and makes his satire memorable.

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