Owen Wingrave

tutorial, commentary, study resources, plot, and web links

Owen Wingrave (1892) is often classed as one of James’s ghost stories, and it functions in that capacity very well, along with examples such as the light-hearted Sir Edmund Orme and the altogether more sinister classic, The Turn of the Screw. It also deals with an issue that is a common feature of Gothic horror stories – the weight of hereditary expectations. The Wingrave family believe Owen’s duty is to become a soldier, just like his forebears. Owen thinks otherwise and decides to resist this social pressure, with consequences that are tragic for both himself and the family as well. It is also a dark variation on The Path of Duty which James had published almost a decade earlier in 1884.

Owen Wingrave – film adaptation

Directed by Margaret Williams 2001 for Channel 4

Owen Wingrave – critical commentary

The force of tradition

Owen is the second son in a family steeped in military tradition which has also suffered violence. His ancestor Colonel Wingrave has killed one of his own children in a fit of passion with a blow to the head, and has died himself by the following day after visiting the corpse. This is the incident which has given the room its macabre reputation.

For more than three hundred years the family has served ‘king (or queen) and country’. Owen’s father has been killed fighting the Afghans, and the eldest son of the family is an ‘imbecile’ who has been ‘relegated to a private asylum’ and cannot become a soldier. All the family’s hereditary future therefore rests on Owen. He is expected to follow the tradition of military service and is put under a great deal of pressure to do so. First by his tutor, then his aunt, his grandfather, and finally by Kate

It is interesting to note that this sense of military duty is shared by both males and females. Owen has been raised by his aunt, who has uppermost in her whole being ‘the paramount valour of her family’, and Kate Julian too ‘adore[s] the army’ and has ‘quite set [her] heart’ on the idea of Owen becoming a soldier.

Thus the family’s history of violence (and the story itself) begins and ends with the death of a Wingrave son. Owen also dies in the same room and the same manner as his ancestor. And although nobody mentions it, the fact is that the family itself (in its male line) comes to an end with Owen’s death. So violence ultimately kills itself.

The psychological threat

In addition to being under pressure to ‘serve his country’ Owen is also expected to marry and produce male offspring who will continue this family tradition. Spencer Coyle reflects on the fact that this is the normal sequence of events for his pupils. He is even a little rueful about coaching them for what often turns out to be a fateful profession.

It is worth noting that Owen has spent the previous night in the ‘white room’ without any ill effects, but Kate Julian both accuses him of cowardice and locks him into it. So Owen escapes both his family’s wishes and the pressure of the rather predatory Kate Julian and the ‘future’ that she represents of perpetuating the male Wingrave lineage. But he escapes it only by the route of his own death.

At a deeper level of course the story is a version of the threat of marriage, heterosexual sex, and the responsibilities of reproduction as perceived by a homosexual author. This is one amongst many of James’s stories around this time that explore this theme, and it is surely no accident that it appealed to another gay artist (Britten) as the subject for one of his operas.

Owen Wingrave – study resources

Owen Wingrave The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

Owen Wingrave The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

Owen Wingrave Complete Stories 1892—1898 – Library of America – Amazon UK

Owen Wingrave Complete Stories 1892—1898 – Library of America – Amazon US

Owen Wingrave Owen Wingrave – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon UK

Owen Wingrave Owen Wingrave – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon US

Owen Wingrave Owen Wingrave – Collector’s Library edition

Owen Wingrave The Ghost Stories of Henry James – Wordsworth edition

Owen Wingrave Owen Wingrave – read the book on line

Owen Wingrave Owen Wingrave – eBook formats at Project Gutenberg

Owen Wingrave Owen Wingrave – BBC film version DVD

Red button Owen Wingrave – 2001 film version

Red button Owen Wingrave – the music score

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Owen Wingrave – plot summary

Part I. Owen Wingrave, the second son of a military family is being coached for entry into Sandhurst and a career as a soldier. He is surrounded by relatives with a fierce loyalty to the traditions of duty, public sacrifice, and death in conflict.

Part II. But he decides that war is ‘barbaric’ and refuses to join the army. His grandfather and maiden aunt are deeply shocked and threaten to disinherit him. They believe that he is merely rationalising his own cowardice.

Part III. A group of people assemble at the old family home with a view to persuading him to change his mind. They include his private tutor, his aunt, and Kate Julian a young woman who expects to marry him.

Part IV. The old house has a macabre history including a room in which a former Wingrave died after killing a young boy. Owen resists the pressure put on him, but when Kate Julian accuses him of cowardice, he offers to spend the night in the room. She locks him in, and the next morning he is found dead on the same spot as his ancestor.

Opera adaptation

Opera by Benjamin Britten 1970

Benjamin Luxon (tenor) as Owen Wingrave, Janet Baker as Kate Julian. Film commissioned by BBC television, with Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. Libretto by Myfanwy Piper.

Principal characters
Owen Wingrave second son of a military family
Spencer Coyle successful private military tutor
Mrs Coyle his wife
Miss Jane Wingrave Owen’s ‘formidable’ aunt
Lechmere small fellow pupil and Owen’s best friend
Philip Wingrave Owen’s elder brother, who is an ‘imbecile’
Owen Wingrave Snr Owen’s father, who died in battle with Afghans
Sir Philip Wingrave Owen’s grandfather
Mrs Julian widow of army captain who was once engaged to Jane Wingrave
Miss Kate Julian her 18 year old daughter
Paramore the Wingrave’s Jacobean family house

Henry James portrait

Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant

Henry James's study

Henry James’s study

Ghost stories by Henry James

Red button The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868)

Red button The Ghostly Rental (1876)

Red button Sir Edmund Orme (1891)

Red button The Private Life (1892)

Red button Owen Wingrave (1892)

Red button The Friends of the Friends (1896)

Red button The Turn of the Screw (1898)

Red button The Real Right Thing (1899)

Red button The Third Person (1900)

Red button The Jolly Corner (1908)

Further reading


Red button Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Red button F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Red button Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1985.

Red button Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.

Red button Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.

Red button Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Red button F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Critical commentary

Red button Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Red button Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.

Red button Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.

Red button Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.

Red button J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

Red button Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.

Red button Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Red button Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976

Red button Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.

Red button Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.

Red button Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Red button Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Red button Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Red button John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Red button Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Red button Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Red button Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Red button Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.

Other works by Henry James

Henry James The Aspern PapersThe Aspern Papers (1888) is a psychological drama set in Venice which centres on the tussle for control of a great writer’s correspondence. An elderly lady, ex-lover of the writer, seeks a husband for her daughter. But the potential purchaser of the papers is a dedicated bachelor. Money is also at stake – but of course not discussed overtly. There is a refined battle of wills between them. Who will win in the end? As usual, James keeps the reader guessing. The novella is a masterpiece of subtle narration, with an ironic twist in its outcome. This collection of stories also includes three of his accomplished long short stories – The Private Life, The Middle Years, and The Death of the Lion.
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James The Spoils of PoyntonThe Spoils of Poynton (1896) is a short novel which centres on the contents of a country house, and the question of who is the most desirable person to inherit it via marriage. The owner Mrs Gereth is being forced to leave her home to make way for her son and his greedy and uncultured fiancee. Mrs Gereth develops a subtle plan to take as many of the house’s priceless furnishings with her as possible. But things do not go quite according to plan. There are some very witty social ironies, and a contest of wills which matches nouveau-riche greed against high principles. There’s also a spectacular finale in which nobody wins out.
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James Daisy MillerDaisy Miller (1879) is a key story from James’s early phase in which a spirited young American woman travels to Europe with her wealthy but commonplace mother. Daisy’s innocence and her audacity challenge social conventions, and she seems to be compromising her reputation by her independent behaviour. But when she later dies in Rome the reader is invited to see the outcome as a powerful sense of a great lost potential. This novella is a great study in understatement and symbolic power.
Daisy Miller Buy the book from Amazon UK
Daisy Miller Buy the book from Amazon US

Henry James – web links

Henry James  web links Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.

Henry James web links The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at Amazon.co.uk. The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.

Henry James web links The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Red button A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.

Henry James web links The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.

Henry James web links Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.

Henry James web links Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.

Henry James web links The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Henry James web links The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.

Henry James web links Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.

© Roy Johnson 2012

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