‘The Altar Of The Dead’ by Henry James

James, Henry 1895

The Altar Of The Dead by Henry James, 1895

The magic trick:

Intensely analyzing the psychology of pain and love

You probably don’t me to tell you this but I will (re)emphasize the point anyway. A Henry James story isn’t light reading. Get ready for dense prose and an intensely psychological study. It can be exhausting, yes, but come on, it’s worth it. And that’s just generally speaking, right? So imagine how intense a Henry James story called “The Altar Of The Dead” might be. Yeahhhh.

In this story, the protagonist, Stransom, is predictably way inside his own head. Think of Mr. Duffy in James Joyce’s “A Painful Case,” if you’re familiar. Both men are similarly restricted by the severity of their moral compass as well as the obsessive adherence to routine. In the case of Stransom, he meets someone who is nearly as obsessed as he by her own loss.

They play off of each other, back and forth, so that the story becomes an almost-overwhelming study of intensity, psychology and spirituality. But if you can get through it, the rewards are abundant for the reader. The story has much to say about the true meaning of unselfish love. And that’s quite a trick on James’s part.

The selection:

Every year, the day he walked back from the great graveyard, he went to church as he had done the day his idea was born. It was on this occasion, as it happened, after a year had passed, that he began to observe his altar to be haunted by a worshipper at least as frequent as himself. Others of the faithful, and in the rest of the church, came and went, appealing sometimes, when they disappeared, to a vague or to a particular recognition; but this unfailing presence was always to be observed when he arrived and still in possession when he departed.


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