tutorial, commentary, web links, and study resources
Guest’s Confession first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly for October—November 1872. It was reprinted years later as part of Travelling Companions published after James’s death in 1919.
Guest’s Confession – plot summary
Part I. The narrator David is waiting for his elder step-brother to arrive during the summer holidays in a small town. David’s account of his brother emphasises the differences and rivalry between them. Walking in the countryside, he enters a small church during a rainstorm to find that the organ is being played by a young woman. He sings along to her playing, and they exchange pleasantries.
When the rain stops he goes to meet Edgar, his step-brother, reflecting critically on his egoism. When he arrives, Edgar is full of neurotic self-concern, and he reveals that he has been swindled out of twenty thousand dollars by a man called John Guest.
Part II. Shortly afterwards they walk out in the village and encounter John Guest in the company of a coquettish woman Mrs Clara Beck. Edgar immediately wishes to challenge Guest, but David sees positive qualities in the handsome and debonair figure. Edgar has appointed solicitors. Guest pleads for ‘understanding’ and restraint.
The two men argue their cases. Guest accuses Edgar of being insane. David suggests that as a compromise, Guest should write out an apology. .Edgar demands that Guest kneel before him and beg for forgiveness. In addition to his demand for the money, he then dictates a confession which he forces Guest to sign. When Guest’s daughter Laura arrives to collect him, she turns out to be the same woman David met in the church.
Part III. David feels disconcerted by his divided loyalties and by his part in the scene of humiliation. He meets Laura again in the village, along with her chaperone Mrs Beck. He spends more and more time with them whilst Guest is back in New York, and he feels increasingly frustrated by Mrs Beck’s constant presence.
Mr Crawford arrives claiming cousinship with Mrs Beck, and David sees that he is paying court to her. The two men compare their respective ‘intentions’ and ‘claims’ regarding the two women.
Part IV. David wishes to pursue his interest in Laura but worries about what she will think if she learns of the part he played in her father’s shame. She however does not take him very seriously and thinks he is spoiled, idle, and too rich. She reveals that he reminds her of her father – because they are both honest and youthful-looking.
David teases Mrs Beck about her choice of Guest or Crawford as the object of her affections. Guest writes from New York to his daughter Laura, telling her he has had to sell their house. David suggests that this would be a good opportunity to go to live in Italy. He plays the organ in the church for her, then declares his love for her and offers her money to help her father. She refuses both offers.
Part V. Edgar is still ill in bed when he receives news that Guest has repaid his debt, but Edgar refuses to return the signed ‘confession’. Guest returns from New York, and Mrs Beck switches her attentions to him, away from Crawford. David makes an appeal to Laura before her father can reveal what he knows about him to her. But when Guest confronts them both he excoriates David completely, and will accept no apology or compromise. David asks Laura to be patient, and meanwhile attends Edgar, who is dying. Edgar leaves David nothing in his will, but puts aside twenty thousand dollars to found a hospice. However, David inherits the confession as part of Edgar’s effects. He tries to re-negotiate with Guest, but they quarrel again.
Part VI. Having heard of Guest’s money problems, Mrs Beck switches her attentions back to Crawford. David refuses to return the confession when Guest asks for it. When he next meets Guest he presents him with an ultimatum: remove the objection to his marrying Laura, or he will show her the confession. But following a bucolic epiphany, David returns to a completely distraught Guest and burns the confession in front of him. He then feels free to ‘claim’ Laura.
Guest’s Confession – principal characters
|David||the rich, vain, and self-regarding narrator|
|Edgard Musgrave||his invalid, older, clever step-brother|
|John Guest||a handsome swindler who has been ill|
|Laura Guest||his daughter|
|Mrs Clara Beck||a childish and coquettish chaperone of thirty-six|
|Mr Crawford||the owner of a silver mine in Arizona|
The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK
The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US
Complete Stories 1864—1874 – Library of America – Amazon UK
Complete Stories 1864—1874 – Library of America – Amazon US
Guest’s Confession – eBook formats at Gutenberg
The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK
Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links
Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, biography, study resources
Guest’s Confession – further reading
Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.
F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.
Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1985.
Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.
Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.
Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999
F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.
Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.
Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.
Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.
Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.
Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.
J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.
Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.
Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976
Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.
Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.
Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009
John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.
Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.
Other works by Henry James
Washington Square (1880) is a superb early short novel, It’s the tale of a young girl whose future happiness is being controlled by her strict authoritarian (but rather witty) father. She is rather reserved, but has a handsome young suitor. However, her father disapproves of him, seeing him as an opportunist and a fortune hunter. There is a battle of wills – all conducted within the confines of their elegant New York town house. Who wins out in the end? You will probably be surprised by the outcome. This is a masterpiece of social commentary, offering a sensitive picture of a young woman’s life.
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The Aspern Papers (1888) is a psychological drama set in Venice which centres on the tussle for control of a great writer’s correspondence. An elderly lady, ex-lover of the writer, seeks a husband for her daughter. But the potential purchaser of the papers is a dedicated bachelor. Money is also at stake – but of course not discussed overtly. There is a refined battle of wills between them. Who will win in the end? As usual, James keeps the reader guessing. The novella is a masterpiece of subtle narration, with an ironic twist in its outcome. This collection of stories also includes three of his accomplished long short stories – The Private Life, The Middle Years, and The Death of the Lion.
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The Spoils of Poynton (1896) is a short novel which centres on the contents of a country house, and the question of who is the most desirable person to inherit it via marriage. The owner Mrs Gereth is being forced to leave her home to make way for her son and his greedy and uncultured fiancee. Mrs Gereth develops a subtle plan to take as many of the house’s priceless furnishings with her as possible. But things do not go quite according to plan. There are some very witty social ironies, and a contest of wills which matches nouveau-riche greed against high principles. There’s also a spectacular finale in which nobody wins out.
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© Roy Johnson 2013
Henry James – web links
Henry James at Mantex
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The Complete Works
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The Ladder – a Henry James website
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A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
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The Henry James Resource Center
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Online Books Page
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Henry James at Project Gutenberg
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The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.
The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
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Henry James – The Complete Tales
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Henry James on the Internet Movie Database
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