‘The Tree Of Knowledge’ by Henry James

The Tree Of Knowledge by Henry James, 1900

The magic trick:

Developing and examining the story’s central theme through conversations between Peter and Lance

Bearing a striking resemblance to Edith Wharton’s 1898 story, “The Pelican,” today’s Henry James feature takes us into the low-stakes world of rich expatriates’s feelings.

The dramatic tension, as usual with Mr. James, derives from the unsaid. I swear, if these characters would just say what was on their mind from the start, they’d have a lot fewer problems. But then we wouldn’t have a story.

The conversations here between Peter and his godson are particularly strong. Sometimes stories are undone by terrible dialogue. Not here. This is a master class in how to use dialogue to capture the tension and move the story forward. The phrases and descriptions between the spoken words are perfectly executed. It’s almost like a play, with lines and stage directions. And that’s quite a trick on James’s part. 

The selection:

“And what I don’t see is,” Lance observed with a certain irritated eye for what was, after all, if it came to that, due to himself too – “What I don’t see is, upon my honour, how you, as things are going, can keep the game up.”

“Oh, the game for me is only to hold my tongue,” said placid Peter. “And I have my reason.”

“Still my mother?”

Peter showed, as he had often shown it before – that is by turning it straight away – a queer face. “What will you have? I haven’t ceased to like her.”

“She’s beautiful – she’s a dear, of course,” Lance granted; “but what is she to you, after all, and what is it to you that, as to anything whatever, she should or she shouldn’t?”

Peter, who had turned red, hung fire a little. “Well – it’s all, simply, what I make of it.”


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