tutorial, commentary, study resources, and web links
Owen Wingrave (1892) is often classed as one of James’s ghost stories, and it functions in that capacity very well, along with examples such as the light-hearted Sir Edmund Orme and the altogether more sinister classic, The Turn of the Screw. It also deals with an issue that is a common feature of Gothic horror stories – the weight of hereditary expectations. The Wingrave family believe Owen’s duty is to become a soldier, just like his forebears. Owen thinks otherwise and decides to resist this social pressure, with consequences that are tragic for both himself and the family as well. It is also a dark variation on The Path of Duty which James had published almost a decade earlier in 1884.
Owen Wingrave – opera adaptation
Opera by Benjamin Britten 1970
Benjamin Luxon (tenor) as Owen Wingrave, Janet Baker as Kate Julian. Film commissioned by BBC television, with Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. Libretto by Myfanwy Piper.
Owen Wingrave – critical commentary
The force of tradition
Owen is the second son in a family steeped in military tradition which has also suffered violence. His ancestor Colonel Wingrave has killed one of his own children in a fit of passion with a blow to the head, and has died himself by the following day after visiting the corpse. This is the incident which has given the room its macabre reputation.
For more than three hundred years the family has served ‘king (or queen) and country’. Owen’s father has been killed fighting the Afghans, and the eldest son of the family is an ‘imbecile’ who has been ‘relegated to a private asylum’ and cannot become a soldier. All the family’s hereditary future therefore rests on Owen. He is expected to follow the tradition of military service and is put under a great deal of pressure to do so. First by his tutor, then his aunt, his grandfather, and finally by Kate
It is interesting to note that this sense of military duty is shared by both males and females. Owen has been raised by his aunt, who has uppermost in her whole being ‘the paramount valour of her family’, and Kate Julian too ‘adore[s] the army’ and has ‘quite set [her] heart’ on the idea of Owen becoming a soldier.
Thus the family’s history of violence (and the story itself) begins and ends with the death of a Wingrave son. Owen also dies in the same room and the same manner as his ancestor. And although nobody mentions it, the fact is that the family itself (in its male line) comes to an end with Owen’s death. So violence ultimately kills itself.
The psychological threat
In addition to being under pressure to ‘serve his country’ Owen is also expected to marry and produce male offspring who will continue this family tradition. Spencer Coyle reflects on the fact that this is the normal sequence of events for his pupils. He is even a little rueful about coaching them for what often turns out to be a fateful profession.
It is worth noting that Owen has spent the previous night in the ‘white room’ without any ill effects, but Kate Julian both accuses him of cowardice and locks him into it. So Owen escapes both his family’s wishes and the pressure of the rather predatory Kate Julian and the ‘future’ that she represents of perpetuating the male Wingrave lineage. But he escapes it only by the route of his own death.
At a deeper level of course the story is a version of the threat of marriage, heterosexual sex, and the responsibilities of reproduction as perceived by a homosexual author. This is one amongst many of James’s stories around this time that explore this theme, and it is surely no accident that it appealed to another gay artist (Britten) as the subject for one of his operas.
Owen Wingrave – study resources
The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK
The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US
Complete Stories 1892—1898 – Library of America – Amazon UK
Complete Stories 1892—1898 – Library of America – Amazon US
Owen Wingrave – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon UK
Owen Wingrave – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon US
Owen Wingrave – Collector’s Library edition
The Ghost Stories of Henry James – Wordsworth edition
Owen Wingrave – read the book on line
Owen Wingrave – eBook formats at Project Gutenberg
Owen Wingrave – BBC film version DVD
Owen Wingrave – 2001 film version
Owen Wingrave – the music score
The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK
Owen Wingrave – plot summary
Part I. Owen Wingrave, the second son of a military family is being coached for entry into Sandhurst and a career as a soldier. He is surrounded by relatives with a fierce loyalty to the traditions of duty, public sacrifice, and death in conflict.
Part II. But he decides that war is ‘barbaric’ and refuses to join the army. His grandfather and maiden aunt are deeply shocked and threaten to disinherit him. They believe that he is merely rationalising his own cowardice.
Part III. A group of people assemble at the old family home with a view to persuading him to change his mind. They include his private tutor, his aunt, and Kate Julian a young woman who expects to marry him.
Part IV. The old house has a macabre history including a room in which a former Wingrave died after killing a young boy. Owen resists the pressure put on him, but when Kate Julian accuses him of cowardice, he offers to spend the night in the room. She locks him in, and the next morning he is found dead on the same spot as his ancestor.
|Owen Wingrave||second son of a military family|
|Spencer Coyle||successful private military tutor|
|Mrs Coyle||his wife|
|Miss Jane Wingrave||Owen’s ‘formidable’ aunt|
|Lechmere||small fellow pupil and Owen’s best friend|
|Philip Wingrave||Owen’s elder brother, who is an ‘imbecile’|
|Owen Wingrave Snr||Owen’s father, who died in battle with Afghans|
|Sir Philip Wingrave||Owen’s grandfather|
|Mrs Julian||widow of army captain who was once engaged to Jane Wingrave|
|Miss Kate Julian||her 18 year old daughter|
|Paramore||the Wingrave’s Jacobean family house|
Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant
Ghost stories by Henry James
The Ghostly Rental (1876)
Sir Edmund Orme (1891)
The Private Life (1892)
Owen Wingrave (1892)
The Friends of the Friends (1896)
The Turn of the Screw (1898)
The Real Right Thing (1899)
The Third Person (1900)
The Jolly Corner (1908)
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
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.
Buy the book from Amazon UK
Buy the book from Amazon US
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.
Buy the book from Amazon UK
Buy the book from Amazon US
Daisy Miller (1879) is a key story from James’s early phase in which a spirited young American woman travels to Europe with her wealthy but commonplace mother. Daisy’s innocence and her audacity challenge social conventions, and she seems to be compromising her reputation by her independent behaviour. But when she later dies in Rome the reader is invited to see the outcome as a powerful sense of a great lost potential. This novella is a great study in understatement and symbolic power.
Buy the book from Amazon UK
Buy the book from Amazon US
Henry James – web links
Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.
The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at Amazon.co.uk. The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.
The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.
A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.
The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.
Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.
Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.
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
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.
Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.
© Roy Johnson 2012
More tales by James
More on literature
More on the novella
More on literary studies
More on short stories