Henry James. A Fictional Character in Colm Toíbìn's "The Master"?

Essay, 2015

9 Seiten, Note: 1,3


Henry James is one of the most important writers and a key-figure of 19th-century literary realism. To deal with Henry James and his works also means to appreciate him as a figure of literary interest. That is to say that he increasingly became not only the issue of reviews or literary criticism but a literary character in a number of novels as well. The numerous biographies and stories about Henry James emphasize his importance but also raise the question of truth and reliability in texts of this genre. The Irish writer Colm Tóibín deals with Henry James in his novel The Master and queues into the diversity of literary works about Henry James. To understand the ambiguity of James as a person of literary interest, this essay tries to focus on the characteristics that shape the view of Henry James. Furthermore, it aims to investigate the question whether Colm Tóibín creates a fictional Henry James who appeals to“somebody who ’ s never read a word of James and knows nothing to him“ [1]. Starting with the definition of relevant terms, this essay proceeds with the description of the contemporary interest in Henry James. Furthermore, it examines Colm Tóibín’s narrative techniques in order to characterize James and questions to what extent these techniques contribute to the fictionality of his work. After exploring the usage of intertextuality, this essay mentions the effects for the two readerships that The Master addresses. It concludes in saying that for though Colm Tóibín does not invent a fictitious character, his Henry James remains a variant of the real Henry James.

Before analyzing the fictionality of Henry James in Colm Tóibín’s novel The Master it is necessary to first define some terms. Considering James as a figure of literary interest always means to recognize him as a character that is formed and created by various biographers or writers. In this respect, it is important to clarify not only the meaning of fiction and fictionality but the differences between a biography and a biographical novel as well. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines fiction as“a statement or narrative proceeding from mere invention“ [2] . That is to say that a fiction is concerned with the narration of imaginary events, characters and relationships and does not necessarily have to be based on facts. Fictionality in turn applies to the relation of literary texts to the real world. These terms are highly discussed because of their characteristics to provide truths without the requirement to be actually true. Biographies and biographical novels are both genres that are concerned with the description of another person’s life. Whereas the OED defines a biography as a “ written account of the life of an individual, especially a historical or public figure“ [3], a biographical novel is rather concerned with fictionality. It provides a fictional and often entertaining account of a person’s life[4]. Therefore, biographical novels illustrate a life story documented in history and transformed into fiction through the imagination of the writer. Thus, it can be said that these types of novels meld the elements of biographical research and historical truth into the framework of a novel.

Having these definitions in mind it becomes necessary to focus on Colm Tóibín’s novel The Master in matters of it’s fictional tendencies. Doubtlessly, Tóibín does not create a fictive character and thus does not tell an invented, fictitious story. Furthermore, he deals with the famous writer Henry James and focuses on events in his life that verifiably have taken place. That is to say, the novel concentrates on four years in James’s life, beginning with the failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895 and ending with the visit of his older brother William four years later. During these years Henry James built up “ ( … ) the images and figures that would constitute the three masterpieces he was gathering all his strength to write“ [5]. This is one of the reasons for the contemporary increasing interest in James, his personality and his works. Many biographers and novelists deal with him not only because of his famousness but also because of the numerous mysteries around his life that attract biographical speculation. These unsolved facts in general refer to Henry James’s sexuality or relationships to others, especially to women. He also presents himself as an ideal model to other writers and leaves unstable and ambivalent constructs of his private and public life through his complete works.

The fact that several of his tales deal with the role of the biographer and the relation between fiction and truth reflect the aforementioned increasing interest in James. It also represents the latest turn in a preoccupation that the literary novel has had for many decades. That is to say, discussing writing books within the act of writing them. For this reason, the novelist appears in several novels and it is striking that many popular biographies and biographical novels are about writers. To return to Colm Tóibín, The Master is often said to be the “ fictionalized life of Henry James“ [6]. Indeed, Tóibín treats Henry James as a character and The Master seems to be typical of this group of novels in it’s concern with establishing and recapturing the origins of James and his prose. Whereas a biographer aims to reveal, to assess and to pass judgement, the novelist is drawn to ambiguity and concealment. This is applicable for Colm Tóibín’s novel. James as the author seems to be transformed into a dramatis persona [7] and Tóibín recounts his life story. As already indicated, there exists a huge number of biographies and novels about Henry James and his life but The Master seems to be a mixture of a biography and a fictional story. It appears to go beyond. Having an obviously high regard for Henry James, Colm Tóibín rather created a mixture of tribute and homage with his work. He mentions in his descriptions of the writing of his novel about James that he acknowledges him as a writer who has been a major influence and preoccupation. Furthermore, he explains in “ Henry James for Venice“ [8] how his own experiences were inspirations for the fictionalization of James’s life. At this point, it seems to be self-evident that Colm Tóibín creates a Henry James in his own image.

Recapitulating the definitions of a biography and a biographical novel, signs of imagination and fictionality can be detected. Tóibín focuses on significant events in Henry James’s life but treats the historical records more freely. He presents Henry James as silent and thoughtful and also as an enigmatic and opaque figure, haunted by the“ghosts“ of his past. Throughout The Master, James is often described as an observer who watches the people around him and retires from the outside world. Withdrawing into himself is a recurring motif in Tóibín’s novel and he is often depicted behind windows from whose “ ( … ) he had observed the world , so that they could be remembered and captured and held.“ [9]. Many critics and biographers focus especially on James’s sexuality and his relationships to women what has the effect of creating a dubious and ambivalent person. Tóibín in contrast seems not to put judgement on James’s sexuality. He takes it as a basic presumption that James was attracted to men but keeps those feelings deeply submerged. Therefore, James’s sexuality becomes a fictional myth and an image of speculation: “ ( … ) what had happened between them belonged to the secret night, the privacy that darkness brought.“ [10].

Not only speculation but also imagination is a recurring theme in the course of Tóibín’s novel. He sets in motion a train of association and suggestion that helps to form the structure of James’s personality. Colm Tóibín features Henry James as a figure who withdraws from his surroundings and focuses on memories and imaginations. Indeed, Tóibín emphasizes that the images of James’s novels originate from his personal experiences and his past. In order to demonstrate the development of James’s prose and his works, Tóibín makes use of flashbacks and freely switches between James’s present, that is to say the narrative present and his past.


[1] Layne, Bethany. (Re)reading Henry James through Colm T ó ib í n ’ s ‘ The Master ’. p.89.

[2] "fiction, n."OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 8 February 2015.

[3] "biography, n."OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 8 February 2015.

[4] ibid.

[5] Tóibín, Colm. All a Novelist needs. p. 87.

[6] The Sacred Geometry of Jamesian Relations. p. lxxxvii.

[7] Scherzinger, Karen. Staging Henry James: Representing the Author in Colm Toibin ’ s ‘ The Master ’. p. 182.

[8] Tóibín, Colm.“Henry James for Venice.“ p.192-201.

[9] Colm Toibin, The Master. p.359.

[10] ibid. p.100.

Ende der Leseprobe aus 9 Seiten


Henry James. A Fictional Character in Colm Toíbìn's "The Master"?
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main  (Institut für Englisch- und Amerikastudien)
ISBN (eBook)
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479 KB
henry, james, fictional, character, colm, toíbìn, master
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Carina Kaufmann (Autor:in), 2015, Henry James. A Fictional Character in Colm Toíbìn's "The Master"?, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/303873


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