OF HENRY JAMES: THE LIAR, THE REAL THING, AND THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE
Theme of Duplicity in Three Short Stories of Henry James: “The Liar,” “The Real Thing,” and “The Beast in the Jungle”
The genius of Henry James manifests itself in duality of meaning in both his shorter and longer works. Appearance and reality provide for two levels of expression. On one level the theme is explicit as told by the narrator, but underneath lies the ambiguous meaning which is in a sense the main theme of the story. The ambiguity is usually embedded in the narrative; it is the task of the attentive reader to seek it out, understand it and enjoy it. James does not make this task easy for the reader. His style is subtle, vague, and demands a lot of attention.
One clue to the real meaning of James’s stories is the irony employed. Most of James’s narrators are unrealiable in the sense that they are deceptive. Their unreliability is either a result of their blindness or unawareness of their situation and environment, or an egotistical engagement in their own affairs so as to distort reality. The unreliable narrator misleads the reader. The Jamesian irony clarifies the story, brings out the real meaning beneath the apparent and reveals the unreliable narrator.
“The Liar” is a perfect example of the use of an unreliable narrator and the existence of two levels of meaning, the real and the apparent. Although the story is not told from a first person point of view, the narrator confines himself only to the mind of Oliver Lyon, a painter and former suitor of Mrs. Capadose. The events are recorded through Lyon’s mind and we perceive people through his eyes.
According to Lyon, Colonel Capadose is a villainous liar who has to be exposed. Lyon’s conception of Capadose as a liar and his envy of the Colonel have blinded Lyon to appreciate him as an amiable human being which in fact he is. Lyon treacherously plans to expose the Colonel in a portrait he will paint as “the liar” and eventually renew his friendship with Mrs. Capadose.
Lyon’s account of the event is the apparent and superficial meaning of the story. Colonel Capadose is the liar and he has corrupted his wife through their years of marriage, for at the end of the story she, too, lies in order to save her husband. Lyon, as the disillusioned hero, watches them depart from his life, thinking that “he had trained her too well.”
On a deeper and more significant level, Oliver Lyon is the real liar. Although Colonel has been known as a liar, he is a harmless man who is only engaged in a social game. In society, in human relationships, one has to wear a mask. Lyon himself points out at the dinner party that people like others not because they are strictly honest but because they are skillful in deception. Lyon’s treachery is much more significant than Colonel’s social games. Lyon tries to violate the integrity of another man’s character; moreover, he plans to expose him to the public.
Subtle but definitely present Jamesian irony brings out the essence of the story. The most obvious ironical device is the name Oliver Lyon, who is the real liar. The exposure of the couple at the end is ironically at the expense of Lyon who loses forever any chance he might have had with this ideal woman, the woman that he has loved for so long. Through the story Lyon plots against the Colonel, but in fact he is bringing about his own disillusionment. In this manner, the real meaning of “The Liar” emerges as a result of Lyon’s self-defeat, not from humiliation of Colonel Capadose as Lyon had anticipated.
The circumstance of “The Real Thing” is slightly...