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The Author of Beltraffio

The Author of Beltraffio

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The Author of Beltraffio 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 the English Illustrated Magazine
English Illustrated Magazine
The English Illustrated Magazine was a monthly publication that ran for 359 issues between October 1883 and August 1913. Features included travel, topography, and a large amount of fiction and were contributed by writers such as Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Stanley J. Weyman and Max Pemberton...

in 1884. This macabre account of desperate family
Family
In human context, a family is a group of people affiliated by consanguinity, affinity, or co-residence. In most societies it is the principal institution for the socialization of children...

 infighting eventually leads to a tragic
Tragedy
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of...

 conclusion. Although the father in the story is a novelist, the tale concentrates far more on his family relationships than on his special concerns as a writer, though some of those concerns affect the outcome.

Plot summary


The narrator of the story, a somewhat naive American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 admirer of English
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...

 novelist Mark Ambient, visits the writer at his home in Surrey
Surrey
Surrey is a county in the South East of England and is one of the Home Counties. The county borders Greater London, Kent, East Sussex, West Sussex, Hampshire and Berkshire. The historic county town is Guildford. Surrey County Council sits at Kingston upon Thames, although this has been part of...

. The narrator is very enthusiastic about Ambient's work, especially his latest novel Beltraffio. He meets Ambient's beautiful but chilly wife, his sickly seven-year-old son Dolcino, and his strange sister Gwendolyn. He also learns that Ambient's wife strongly dislikes her husband's novels and considers them corrupt and pagan.

Dolcino eventually becomes much more ill. In order to "protect" him from what she sees as the baleful influence of his father, Ambient's wife withholds the boy's medicine. Dolcino dies, and the details of his mother's conduct are told to the narrator by Gwendolyn. The mother, grief-stricken over her role in Dolcino's final illness, dies herself after a few months. In a grimly ironic note to conclude the story, the narrator says Ambient later revealed that his wife had become partially reconciled to his novels and even read Beltraffio in the weeks before her death.

Key themes


When James was mulling over this story 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...

, he wondered if the tale would be "too gruesome" and "too unnatural." The double dose of mortality at the end of the story may seem extreme, but James narrates events so smoothly—even with touches of humor, especially about Ambient's bizarre, arty sister—that readers may accept the catastrophe as perhaps not inevitable but somewhat believable.

In the 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 said he based the story on the real-life marriage of John Addington Symonds
John Addington Symonds
John Addington Symonds was an English poet and literary critic. Although he married and had a family, he was an early advocate of male love , which he believed could include pederastic as well as egalitarian relationships. He referred to it as l'amour de l'impossible...

, an English art historian, poet, and proponent of homosexuality who was constantly quarreling with his very proper wife. The contrast of an esthetic point of view, carried "even to morbidness" (to use James's own words), and a more rigid, traditionalist stance creates the story's intense atmosphere of conflict. The tragic outcome might seem perverse and even silly when considered as part of a supposedly realistic story. But at least James prepares thoroughly for the conclusion with an extensive treatment of the discord in the Ambients' marriage.

Critical evaluation


Critic Robert Gale, in an odd echo of James' own comments in the 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...

, called this story "morbid," and that verdict has found some agreement among other critics. Most commentators concede that James narrates the harsh events powerfully, and that he makes the conclusion as convincing as anybody could. Ambient's weird sister has also been much appreciated as a clever satire on the self-consciously "artistic" personality.

The crux for the reader is whether Ambient's wife is really capable of showing such disregard for her son's suffering, in a wildly misguided belief that the boy is better off dead than corrupted by his father's influence. While Mrs. Ambient is shown as rather cold and overly prim, she may not be convincing as such a monster to her own child. The reservations that James himself expressed about the tale's "unnatural" plot might be all too valid.

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