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Henry James' The Aspern Papers

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Henry James' The Aspern Papers


The Aspern Papers by Henry James illustrates a classic opposition throughout the story: the underestimation of the old by the young. The narrator, Aspern’s publisher, sets himself to the task of retrieving several mysterious “papers” from a former lover of his idol, and goes in with the easy confidence of a young man who never dreams that anyone, much less an elderly lady, could be not one, but in fact several, steps ahead of him at all times in his hunt for literary gold. The relationship between Miss Bordereau and the narrator is that of the cat and the mouse, with the narrator believing he is the cat, and Miss Bordereau knowing that she has the upper hand by the simple fact of possession. The narrator is certain the love letters exist, but Miss Bordereau has no intention of turning over her private affairs to an impudent stranger who does not even have the decency to be straightforward and ask her about the letters– instead he concentrates on her niece, Miss Tina, and in effect seals his own destiny with that choice, leading to the option of marriage or losing the papers completely.

From the first meeting between the narrator and Miss Bordereau, it seems that the old woman has a very clear idea of the character of Aspern’s publisher and knows precisely what he is after. Although the narrator has some doubts as to the success of his admiration for her garden, her niece, and her home, stating that “She listened to me in perfect stillness and I felt her look at me with great penetration,” overall he never doubts his eventual success until his final defeat at Miss Bordereau’s deathbed (James, 16). He does try to act natural and jovial in her presence, but there is always an underlying t...


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...they will willingly hand him the letters with their blessing. In an obvious reversal of this prediction, however, is Miss Bordereau’s response to the narrator’s asking to push her wheelchair from the balcony overlooking the garden– “Oh yes, you may move me this way– you shan’t any other!” (James, 66). Miss Bordereau is always moving beyond the reach of the narrator, but he does not realize just how far beyond his reach the beloved papers are until the conclusion of the story: Miss Bordereau is dead, Miss Tina is no longer a pliable tool, and the papers have been irrevocably turned into unreadable ash. The relationship that he sought to form between himself and Miss Bordereau through the intermediary of Miss Tina has left him with nothing and has left Miss Bordereau laughing in her grave at the young, overconfident literary who thought he could get the better of her.


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