Paste by Henry James, 1899
The magic trick:
Moving the story to a predictable conclusion before switching leverage at the last minute
This is pretty flimsy stuff as Henry James goes.
His genius lies in digging deep psychological truths out of surface-level social interactions and norms. But when he goes mining in this story, all he turns up is pyrite.
The problems begin at the beginning – the entire concept is meant to be a twist on Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.” The story, to James’s credit, does not play out like a gimmick, but in some ways it suffers an even worse fate: it’s dull.
The three characters never rise above typecast. The plot is insufferably slow, the stakes insufferably low.
OK, so is it a total waste of time? Nah. Not a total waste.
The ending is a surprise – or at least was to me. The story appears to be ramping toward a happy conclusion for our protagonist. Charlotte has been talked down to throughout, and as she starts to get the upper hand, it’s easy for the reader to feel that standard, pleasant-revenge feeling so many stories give us. But then things change. And that’s quite a trick on James’s part.
Charlotte, dumb a moment, took it all in. “It IS as if they knew it—they’re more and more alive. But so much the worse for both of us! I can’t,” she brought out with an effort, “be silent.”
“You mean to return them?”
“If I don’t I’m a thief.”
Mrs. Guy gave her a long hard look: what was decidedly not of the baby in Mrs. Guy’s face was a certain air of established habit in the eyes. Then, with a sharp little jerk of her head and a backward reach of her bare beautiful arms, she undid the clasp and, taking off the necklace, laid it on the table. “If you do you’re a goose.”
“Well, of the two—!” said our young lady, gathering it up with a sigh. And as if to get it, for the pang it gave, out of sight as soon as possible, she shut it up, clicking the lock, in the drawer of her own little table; after which, when she turned again, her companion looked naked and plain without it. “But what will you say?” it then occurred to her to demand.
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