Performance and deception in The Aspern Papers
By: Fernanda Price
In examining the role of theater and performance in Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, it is clear that the very nature of the novel is in itself a play. It’s as if all the characters are wearing theatrical masks and playing the roles they choose. Everything is theatrical- the way the characters behave, the dramatization of normal life and simple activities, and the set-like quality of the locations in which the story is carried out. The entirety of the characters’ behavior is a performance put on for each other and for the reader, which is evident in the deceptive nature of their interactions, and through the narrator’s hidden identity. Furthermore, the structure of the book itself employs theatrical elements in the writing style.
One factor that depicts the novel as theatrical is the locations in which the story takes place. Venice as a setting functions as a dramatic backdrop which exemplifies the artificial nature permeating the book. Italy also happens to be a common setting of dramatic theatrical pieces such as Romeo and Juliet, and the narrator often makes references to Shakespeare’s work, even comparing it to Aspern’s at times. The facades of the buildings described in deep detail (it’s possible to imagine a decaying set for a play) add to the exploration of the inner and the outer- the connection of what lurks beneath the surface and what is presented to the world, or the audience. This metaphor is most clearly expressed by Mrs. Prest, as she assures the narrator not to be fooled by the grandeur of the palace into believing that the Misses Bordereau weren’t in need of money:
“…big house here, and especially in this quartier perdu, proves nothing at all: it is perfectly compatible with a state of penury. Dilapidated old palazzi, if you will go out of the way for them, are to be had for five shillings a year. And as for the people who live in them no, until you have explored Venice socially as much as I have you can form no idea of their domestic desolation. They live on nothing, for they have nothing to live on.” (James 26)
The idea of social behavior as a theatrical act is suggested and it foreshadows the behaviors that will ensue once the narrator enters the palace. The Bordereau women certainly demonstrate a need for keeping up appearances and acting out their part, as is demonstrated by their assumption that people have heard of them even though they never leave the confines of their palace.
The first sign of performance comes in the form of the narrative structure: First-person narration. Here is where the act of disguise begins. The narrator, unnamed, hides his true identity from the reader and doesn’t delve into any identifying characteristics of himself-not even his name. Instead, he absorbs his identity from his idol, Jeffrey Aspern, who he is obsessed with. His character, then, is defined by a performance that he is putting on for the reader and his actions and reasoning are then merely his own depiction of the events which transpired. His performance, however, doesn’t have just one audience, but two: the reader and his hostesses- Juliana and Tina Bordereau. The narrator creates a false identity and deceives them in order to achieve his goal of attaining the coveted Aspern papers. He goes into the palace already having formulated this plan, even bringing with him a card with a fake name he has picked for himself. He is fully prepared to play a part and to perform for the Bordereau women, even without having met them or having any real knowledge of them. This orchestrated deception is something he states from the beginning, when he describes his plan to his friend, Mrs. Prest:
“I can arrive at my spoils only by putting her off her guard, and I can put her off her guard only by ingratiating diplomatic practices. Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance. I am sorry for it, but there’s no baseness I wouldn’t commit for Jeffrey Aspern’s sake. First I must take tea with her; then tackle the main job.” (James 26)
Throughout the story there is a need to remain faithful to the characters presented, to be consistent in the performance. The narrator is very careful about the way he acts and what he says, making sure to keep up his act by not revealing his true intention until the plot calls for it. Yet the deception and performance continues even later in the book when he eventually decides to come clean to Miss Tina, and tells her his real name, and he doesn’t reveal it to the reader, because he is still performing for him.
Another theatrical aspect of the story is the manipulation carried on by the narrator and Juliana Bordereau. They enter into a sort of conniving game in which they constantly deceive each other and withhold their true sentiments and intentions and instead put on a performance to gain something from the other. The narrator lies in order to gather information from Juliana and from Tina, while Juliana withholds information and extorts him to get large sums of money and to make him form a relationship with her niece. It is unclear throughout the entire story whether Juliana is aware of the narrator’s true motives and whether she actually owns what he’s after, all that is revealed is her performance and the way she uses it to get her way.
There is certainly no lack of theatrical elements and drama in the text. One type- the less explored one- is internal drama. The exposure to the narrator’s issues of morality and obsession presented with his internal struggles at how far he is willing to manipulate the women and what acts he is capable of committing to attain his goal. This type of drama serves as a background to the second type-external drama, the tension that increases throughout the book which is akin to the suspense of a theatrical performance that builds as the audience wonders whether or not he will get the papers, whether in fact there are even any papers to find, and if there are, whether Julianna will burn them. The novel even seems to follow the flow of a theatrical performance, as it build the tension throughout the story (much like a play), reaching a climax and not having a resolution until the end of the novel. James even hints at the concept of theater and every character playing a part, every day, all the time in the scene in which the narrator has left the palace after Tina’s strange proposal and is wandering through Venice in his gondola, observing the theatrical aspects of the city and of its inhabitants:
“And somehow the splendid common domicile, familiar, domestic and resonant, also resembles a theatre, with actors clicking over bridges and, in straggling processions, tripping along fondamentas. As you sit in your gondola the footways that in certain parts edge the canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage, meeting it at the same angle, and the Venetian figures, moving to and fro against the battered scenery of their little houses of comedy, strike you as members of an endless dramatic troupe.”(James 110)
The manner in which the narrator describes the settings could be seen as the setting descriptions at the top of a script; the descriptions he gives for the manner in which characters speak is similar to the stage directions, all of which helps the reader visualize the way a scene is “acted out”. For example, when Tina first mentions to the narrator that her aunt knew Jeffrey Aspern his remark was:
“Miss Tina gave me this information flatly, without expression; her tone might have made it a piece of trivial gossip. But it stirred me deeply as she dropped the words into the summer night; their sound might have been the light rustle of an old unfolded love-letter” (James 61)
This description sounds as if a script told the actress playing Tina to deliver the line flatly and expressionless. It further depicts the calculated way in which each character carries themselves, even carefully selecting the tonality of their voices when they reveal information. Everything is overly dramatized and designed to fit the performance.
Dramatic theatricality is seen most vividly in the climax of the story, in which the narrator is trying to find the papers in the secretary and is consequently caught by Julianna:
“Juliana stood there in her night dress, by the doorway of her room, watching me; her hands were raised, she had lifted the everlasting curtain that covered half her face, and for the first, the last, the only time I beheld her extraordinary eyes. They glared at me; they were like a sudden drench, for a caught burglar, of a flood of gaslight; they made me horribly ashamed. I never shall forget her strange little bent white tottering figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, her expression; neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned, looking at her, she hissed out passionately, furiously:
“Ah you publishing scoundrel!” (James 95)
This segment is particularly theatrical in the way it builds tension, almost as if the audience were seeing Juliana creep up slowly behind the narrator, unbeknownst to him, creating dramatic irony. The way he describes her, as lifting “the everlasting curtain” is reminiscent of a mask, as if Julianna was revealing the real her for the first time in the story, the first moment in which she is not performing for him, or playing any games. That line: “You publishing scoundrel” and the moment in which she falls immediately afterwards could be very easily followed by a curtain falling, ending the first act and building the suspense for what’s to come in the second. Uncertainty has built and the tension has reached an all-time high at this point, and it is overly dramatized making the scene all the more theatrical.
Overall, The Aspern Papers is a highly theatrical piece that has all the elements of a great play: dramatic suspense, interesting, cunning characters, and a plot ridden with moral dilemmas. Also, like a play, the audience is left to infer or imagine the motives behind the character’s actions, particularly Miss Tina’s – who turns out to be the ultimate performer-decision to burn the papers in the end. It is very dramatic and theatrical to leave it up to interpretation what led her to commit such an act, whether it be love, resentment, revenge, or pride. The reader is also left to infer the motives behind her character- whether she really was just a shy, demure woman who was used to being controlled all her life, or whether it was all an act and she was really manipulating the narrator the entire time. She was used to playing the part that was assigned to her for her entire life and it’s only towards the end that she starts to show another side to her character, although which side is the performance and which is the real her is up to the audience to determine. In the end, it is unclear who was manipulating who as it was all a performance and each character played their own part, hiding from the reader- the audience- all semblance of reality and instead putting on a play for them to decipher.
James, Henry. The Aspern papers. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. Print.