A "Witless" Woman and her valiant Masquerade: Miss Tina in "The Aspern Papers"

Term Paper, 2010

10 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1 Introduction

2 A “Witless” Woman an her valiant Masquerade

3 Bibliography

1 Introduction

"[I]n fact I afterwards found [Miss Tina] the bigger of the two in inches.”[1]

- narrator in The Aspern Papers (1888)

At first glance, Henry James’ novella The Aspern Papers seems to be a story about a conquering heroic narrator, who copes with several problems during the story, solves them by implementing a tremendously brilliant plan, and at the end firmly believes to have reached his goal – the long-desired Aspern Papers.

However, James does not simply narrow down his novella to a plain adventurous story à la Indiana-Jones, he rather embellishes it with ingenuity and brilliancy. In order to reveal this brilliancy, the attentive reader will soon realize that it is important for this novella to read between the lines, rather than being just impressed by the artful acting of the narrator. As Gargano once stated: “James’ narrator prepares the reader for the ‘big’ scenes, for James himself the small and transitional scenes tell the fuller truth […]”.[2] Hence, even the spaces within the novella seem to be fraught with tension.

When analysing James’ novella, one will soon realize that there is a quite significant complexity within the text. Indeed, it seems that the characters of the story are so close connected in their thinking and their action that it becomes quite difficult for the reader to distinguish between the person who dupes and the one who is duped at the end of the story. This complexity becomes clear by analysing the story of Juliana’s niece, Miss Tina. Although Miss Tina is not presented as the typical mighty heroine right at the outset of the story, and is often initially seen as a simple-minded minor character, whose only function is to serve as a tool for the narrator to achieve his goal, there is so much more about her. During the novella this “futile spinster”[3] turns into a “clever manipulator”[4], using the narrator’s obsession with the papers to assert her claims, and finally turns out to be the true heroin of the story.

2 A “Witless” Woman an her valiant Masquerade

By looking close at the story, one will discover that it is mainly the narrator who plays an important role for Miss Tina’s transformation. In fact, this seems to be quite clear to the attentive reader, but not the narrator himself who remains blind towards her transformation. Although the narrator does not realize his impact on Miss Tina’s transformation, he is aware of the fact that he has some sort of influence on her – all he does is misconceiving it. One will come across the fact that his influence on Miss Tina turns out to be different from what the narrator hoped for and is not as tremendous as he believes.

The narrator’s false perception of his influence becomes quite clear during the first scenes. Although Miss Tina is presented as a minor character in the first scenes[5], she is far from being just a “witless woman”.[6] What strikes her as witless is on the one hand the narrator’s blindness to see Miss Tina as a serious person, and on the other hand his persuasion that everyone around him is “subordinate”[7]. It becomes apparent when the narrator arrives at the Venetian palazzo of Juliana, pretending to look for a flat. It is Miss Tina’s “I don’t know”[8] that the narrator takes as a clear evidence for her simplicity and her helplessness around him. At no time he interprets her wariness towards him as a hint that she might consider him as someone who came to invade the women’s privacy.[9]

Furthermore, the narrator’s false perception of Tina’s weakness becomes even clearer during the garden scene. When Juliana’s niece claims that the flowers need a man, not only the narrator takes it as a hint that she might fall in love with him, also several critics believe that it is Miss Tina’s desire to find love that is symbolized here. However, her statement that “one has to have a man”[10] does not necessarily symbolize Miss Tina’s inner wish to find someone she could love. The fact that she just gives a vague description that “a man” is needed rather than mentioning that she wants to have a precise type of man, for instance the narrator, does therefore not absolutely confirm the assumption that the niece is looking for someone she could love. Furthermore, her longing for a man could also be seen as Miss Tina’s wish “to escape the suffocating atmosphere of Juliana’s house”.[11] As she notes herself: “We have no life here”.[12]

As a matter of fact, it could have been any man in the world she is describing at this point, not just the narrator. That it is him of all people just gives Miss Tina some sort of advantage. Since the narrator is described as a rather unreliable source who is so obsessed with getting the papers, it is hardly surprising that he not only misses to see the transformation of Miss Tina, he also sees in her “only what he wants to see”[13]. Miss Tina; however, makes use of this situation. The narrator’s blindness not only gives her the chance to let her own intentions remain uncovered, it also enables her to “reveal [the narrator’s] own motives, [while] she keeps him at a distance”[14].

Although the narrator’s contact starts to transform Miss Tina into a “more engaging and ‘youthful’ person”[15], one must notice that Miss Tina is not dependent on him, nor does she trust the narrator implicitly. In fact, there seems to be even some sort of mistrust in her, as she states during the garden scene: “I don’t believe you”[16]. Moreover, when she is asking the narrator if he came here to write about Jeffrey Aspern, it does not only make clear that Miss Tina is capable of exposing the real intentions of the narrator, at the same time Henry James shows the narrator’s simplicity again. Once again the narrator does not take into consideration that Miss Tina could be more than a witless woman. Although he asks himself if it is a trap “to make him show his hands”[17], he is “so certain of Tina’s artlessness and witlessness”[18] that he simply misses to see this.

Furthermore, her independence towards the narrator and her strong character become even more obvious as she refuses the narrator’s proposal to “bring her a little [life]”[19]. In fact, James presents her as a powerful woman that exactly “know[s] what [she] want[s]”.[20] By asking the narrator “Do you think we’ve any weak points?”[21] Miss Tina emphasizes this assumption.

Hence, although the narrator has some influence on Miss Tina, it seems to be only relevant to awake this sleeping beauty. After he has done so, it is mainly his simplicity Miss Tina utilizes. She does not only fool him, she also reveals the narrator’s real intentions. Instead of being used as the narrator’s tool, it is Miss Tina who dupes the narrator.


[1] James, Henry, “The Aspern Papers and the Turning of the Screw”, ed. Anthony Curtis, (London: Penguin 1984) p.45, hereafter cited as James, 1984.

[2] Gargano, James, W., “The Aspern Papers”: The Untold Story, Studies in Short Fiction, 10:1 (Winter 1973) p.2, hereafter cited as Gargano, 1973.

[3] James, 1984, p.65.

[4] Crowley, John W., “The Wiles of a ‘Witless’ Woman: Tina in The Aspern Papers”, Emerson Society Quarterly 22 (1976): p.159, hereafter cited as Crowley, 1976.

[5] Cf. Gargano, 1973, p.3.

[6] James, 1984, p.62.

[7] Gargano, 1973, p.1.

[8] James, 1984, p.56.

[9] Crowley,1976, p.159.

[10] James, 1984, p.56.

[11] Crowley, 1976, p.159.

[12] James, 1984, p.69.

[13] Crowley, 1976, p.159.

[14] Jensen-Osinski, Barbara, “The Key to the Palpable Past: Miss Tina in The Aspern Papers”, Henry James Review, 3:1 (Fall 1981), p.7., hereafter cited as Jensen-Osinski, 1981.

[15] Gargano, 1973, p.3.

[16] James, 1984, p.86.

[17] James, 1984, p.84.

[18] Crowley, 1976, p.162.

[19] James, 1984, p.69.

[20] James p.69

[21] James p.69.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


A "Witless" Woman and her valiant Masquerade: Miss Tina in "The Aspern Papers"
http://www.uni-jena.de/  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Literary Studies II
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Aspern Papers, Motiv, Literary Studies, English, Literature
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Sabrina Walther (Author), 2010, A "Witless" Woman and her valiant Masquerade: Miss Tina in "The Aspern Papers" , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/176352


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