Henry James and His Novels

Updated on January 19, 2017

Henry James (1843-1916) was born in New York City in 1843. His father, Henry James Sr., was a rich man who liked to read philosophy and Theology. Henry was indeed a cosmopolitan; the James family travelled across Europe during 1855 and 1860. Henry’s brother William James is considered to be one of the greatest psychologists of all time.


James moved to Paris in 1875. There he studied European literature, that is why his writing seems to be influenced by Flaubert, Zola, and Ivan Turgenev. However, the writer who left a strong impact on James was Henry De Balzac. Henry James gives a lot of credit to Balzac’s writings which educated him to become a fine writer.

James was a great observer who found that there was a good deal of difference between the European and American culture; the early novels of James, like Roderick Hudson, The portrait of a lady, primarily exhibit the impact of European culture on American life. His later novels—The wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903)—incorporate international themes. James was a prolific writer: he wrote twenty novels, over one hundred stories, a great number of novellas, and many travelogues and criticism.

James went to Harvard Law School in 1862, but he did not like studying law and pursued studying literature and writing novels. He finally dropped out of Harvard Law School and pursued literature.

James’ novels differed a great deal from the conventional novels, and his essays were out of the league. His work contributed much in the evolution of novel. James’ idea of ‘realism’ faced vitriolic criticism initially which subsided with time, and there arrived a time when his genius was recognized and his idea became an elegant novel writing style. James himself stated about his ‘realism’ that the writer must be faithful to his characters; a character must be portrayed as people in the real life. In his most acclaimed novel “The portrait of a lady” , one can anticipate what she is going to do in a situation if she acted in a way in the same situation before.

In most of the novels the writer begins with an idea or theme and make his characters act in a certain way and the plot comes to the ending predetermined in the mind of the author. James’ approach was audaciously different: he began with a situation and developed his characters as real personalities. He would “let his characters develop on their own” and he would have no predetermined ending in mind. The characters “themselves” weaved the plot and reach the denouement. James himself divulged his approach.

James’ approach is evident in his novel ‘The portrait of a lady’. The protagonist Isabel Archer is a talented Victorian era lady who finds herself socially constrained to achieve her full potential. She is rich but a little vulnerable, as a result of this she falls prey to Osmond and Madam Merle who schemes Isabel to marry Osmond. Osmond and Isabel settle in Paris. In the end Goodwood persists Isabel to leave Osmond and the novel ends after few pages in an obscure manner.


It is astonishing to know that such a writer as James, who wrote great realistic novels, also wrote a volume of short stories. These stories were published in a single volume named ‘The turn of the screw’.

The novel, which was written in 1878, and was published in issues of a British magazine cornhill, set James’ status as a great novelist. Daisy Miller is rich and brought up in a high society of New York. Daisy is unsophisticated, naïve, and over confident. There was a great difference between the American and European society. From European point of view, Daisy, other than her fancy dresses, is too hoyden. She goes unchaperoned with men on tours. Daisy is on a Europe tour with her mother and his brother Rudolph. In Switzerland, she meets a man named Winterbourne. Winterbourne finds Daisy a simple girl whose individuality is not adulterated by superficial manners and prudish style of the American and European high class. She goes on a trip alone, without any chaperone, with Winterbourne. Winterbourne’s aunt Mrs. Castello disapproves of the Millers. She tells Winterbourne that she is not at all interested in meeting the Millers, especially the ‘crass’ girl. Daisy and her family’s reputation is scandalized in Europe. Winterbourne tells Daisy to be a little conscious to what people are thinking and that she is the talk of the town because of her boldness. An Italian named Giovanelli becomes a suitor to Daisy. Daisy sometimes tells Winterbourne that she is engaged to Giovanelli, and next time tells she is not; it confuses Winterbourne. Daisy catches Malaria and becomes severely sick. She hands over a message to her mother to pass on to Winterbourne. She dies and her mother passes on her message to Winterbourne. He now realizes that Daisy really cared about him. He realizes that he had make a great mistake in understanding Daisy.

Daisy Miller has been acknowledged as the first “international” novel. Apart from the differences of societies, the greater theme in “Daisy Miller” is the unlived life. Recurrently in James’ novel, this theme emerges. Rather than knowing Daisy’s heart which is impregnated with innocence, Winterbourne had been constantly looking at what Daisy wears, where does she go, she goes alone or with a chaperone. Ironically Winterbourne could not understand Daisy and time passed by. Daisy Miller is not about whether Daisy understands her own behavior and attitude towards life, it is more about Winterbourne’s inability to understand her innocence.

Henry James died in London in 1916. The epithet written on his tombstone reads:






Given below is a list of all the James’ work:

The Altar of the Dead

The Ambassadors

The American

The American Scene

The Aspern Papers

The Author of Beltraffio

The awkward age

The beast in the Jungle

The Beldonad Holbein

The Bostonians

A bundle of letters

The Chaperon


The Coxon fund

Daisy Miller:A study in two parts

The Death of The Lion

The Diary of a man of fifty


Eugene Pickering

The Europeans

The Figure in the Carpet

The Finer Grain

Four Meetings

Georgena’s Regions


The Golden Bowl

Greville Fane


An International Episode

Italian Hours

The Jolly Corner

The Lesson of the Master

A Little Tour in France

A London Life; The Patagonia; The Liar

Louissa Pallant

Madam de Mauves

The Madonna of the Future

The Marriages

Nona Vincent

The Outcry


A passionate Pilgrim

The Patagonia

The Path of Duty

The pension Beaurepas

Picture and Text

The Point of View

The Portrait of a Lady

The Pupil

The Real Thing

The Reverberator

Roderick Hudson

Sir Dominick Ferrand

A small Boy and Others

Some Short Stories

The Tragic Muse

The Turn of the Screw

Washington Sqare

What Maisie Knew

The Wings of the Dove


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