Sunday, August 24, 2008

Short Story Sunday: "The Tree of Knowledge" by Henry James

I have long been intimidated by Henry James. It took some doing to get a master's degree in English literature with a focus on Victorian era novels and not have to read Henry James, but I did it. Look at the opening sentence from this short story and I think you can see why I find him intimidating:

It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend, Morgan Mallow.

Can you blame me for shying away from his novels. Imagine 100's of pages like that. It's even written in the passive voice! But, I thought a short story, maybe I could read a short story by Henry James. There's one in this old anthology I have and it's only 11 pages. So I gave "The Tree of Knowledge" a try and I'm very glad that I did.

I would not describe it as easy reading, but it is well worth the effort. The story consists of Peter Brench, who is in love with a married woman, the wife of his friend Morgan Mallow. Brench plainly sees that Mrs. Mallow is in love with her husband and that he has no chance with her, but he wants to remain as close to her as possible. So he remains friends with her husband and becomes god father to their one son. Over the years Morgan Mallow continues his efforts at sculpture, filling his house and gardens with statues that he cannot sell. Peter Brench plainly sees that the statues are awful but he plays along for Mrs. Mallow's sake; she continuously heaps praise on the statues and insists that someday people will recognize her husband's genius. After many years as a family friend Peter Brench is forced to confront his god son with the truth about his father's artwork to prevent the young man from giving up Cambridge to go to Paris to become an artist like his father.

I cannot go further without giving away the end except to say that there is a plot twist, that I guessed, and then another plot twist, that I didnt' guess, which left me a bit breathless once I realize what had been going on for so many years. Can we ever really know what our friends think about us? Do we really want to? A friend of mine deiscribe Henry James as a writer who'll drop a very small bit of information towards the end of a story which changes your perception of everything that went on before. He does this very well in "The Tree of Knowledge."

If you're as afraid of Henry James's novels as I am, try one of his short stories. "The Tree of Knowledge" is excellent and left me with an appetite for more Henry James. I may even give a novel a try sometime.

Join the Challenge and win a prize.
If you'd like to join me for Short Story September and win a prize follow these simple steps:
Read a short story.
Write a brief review of it. (Or a long one if you like.)
Post it on your blog or leave it as a comment here. (You can leave a review of any story, you do not have to review the story you are commenting on. Please let me know if it's okay for me to post your review on this blog. If you post the review on your blog please leave a link as a comment.)

You can enter as many times as you like.
Read one story a day, read one story a week, read one story in September.

Prizes: Every reviewed story counts as one entry. The prizes are copies of:

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers
The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader
Paul's Case ond Other Stories by Willa Cather
Thirteen Stories by Eudoria Welty

You might even win more than one book. Dakota will be randomly selecting the winner on October 1. I'm giving away one book for every ten entries, so review as many stories as you can to increase your chances of winning.


katrina said...

Add me in, the link to my opening post is here:

Grilsgood said...

I think I can do it

Sarah said...

Henry James is worth persevering with! I'd suggest you try some of his shorter fiction like Daisy Miller, The Aspern papers, The Turn of the Screw, Washington Square or The Europeans if you want to take it slowly!

Matt said...

I like Henry James, but agree with you that I cannot always read him. I cannot read James if there will be distractions. William James once had a serious row with him that the brothers actually stopped talking to each other for several years. William asked Henry not to write any more artistic novels (that probably won't arouse the interest of the Americans) but to write a great American novel that appreciates puritan values. But I still think students should at least read Henry James' novels.

The premise of this story reminds me of Sentimental Education.

Alessandra said...

I'd like to join the challenge! Here's my opening post