Lessons of Duplicity in " The Lesson of the Master "

Abstract : First published in 1888, “The Lesson of the Master” stages once again the conflict between art and life that underlies so many of James’s fictions, as he pits the experienced and much admired Master, Henry St George, against his seemingly naïve and most certainly fascinated disciple, Paul Overt. The story has often been read as one of James’s first ambiguous tales, for the open ending of the text leaves it to the reader to determine whether St George has voluntarily double-crossed Overt by urging him to renounce his desire for life the better to satisfy his craving for the perfect work of art—this effectively enabling the Master to marry the young and beautiful Marian Fancourt, with whom Overt was secretly in love. Yet the emphasis on the Master’s possible duplicity diverts the reader’s attention from Overt’s own underhanded efforts to take St George’s place at “the head of the profession.” Simultaneously masking and exposing the disciple’s double-dealings, the story thus records and stages another series of deceptive manoeuvres: progressively eliminating his potential rivals, Overt strives to establish a privileged relationship with St George in order, not only to become the Master’s only alter ego, but ultimately to replace him and be at once a literary genius and a successful man of the world. Following Overt’s perspective, then, duplicity turns out to be part of a paradoxical strategy on his part to win this homoerotic power game and thereby achieve self-recognition, or rather self-unification, a strategy that in the end cannot but fail. This article argues that therein lies the “lesson” of the text, namely that duplicity, taken this time in its literal sense of “doubleness,” is the condition of both life and literature which, though indissolubly linked, are bound never to coincide with one another or with themselves. Hence, perhaps, the characters’ repeated attempts to live their lives vicariously, or by proxy, projecting themselves in the lives and works of others. Eventually, this may well be what the preface to the 1913 New York Edition (itself doubling the main text and precluding its closure) calls the “operative irony” of the tale which “implies and projects the possible other case.”
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Thomas Constantinesco. Lessons of Duplicity in " The Lesson of the Master ". Dennis Tredy, Annick Duperray and Adrian Harding. Henry James and the Poetics of Duplicity, ⟨Cambridge Scholars Publishing⟩, pp.39-48, 2013, 978-144384417. ⟨hal-01378889⟩

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