The Tree of Knowledge

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

The Tree of Knowledge first appeared in the volume of short stories published under the collective title The Soft Side in 1900 – a remarkably productive year for Henry James. It was a period which saw the publication of The Great Good Place, Maud-Evelyn, Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie, The Abasement of the Northmores, The Third Person, The Tone of Time, and the story which is widely regarded as his finest – The Beast in the Jungle. He wrote all of these (and more) in addition to working on his next novel, The Sacred Fount (1901).


The Tree of Knowledge

The artist’s studio


The Tree of Knowledge – critical commentary

This is one of many stories James wrote about artists and their varying degrees of success. Morgan Mallow is a hopelessly untalented sculptor who is blind to his own lack of skill but has apparently persuaded the people around him otherwise. The main point of the story is first his son’s realisation that his father is a fraud, and then the revelation that his devoted and supportive wife has been aware of his artistic failure all along.

The most noteworthy thing about the story is the lofty and droll manner in which James conveys Mallow’s lack of talent as a sculptor.

The room they sat in was adorned with sundry specimens of the Master’s genius…They were indeed of dimensions not customary in the products of the chisel and had the singularity that, if the objects and features intended to be small looked too large, the objects and features intended to be large looked too small…The creations [ …] stood about on pedestals and brackets, on tables and shelves, a little staring white population, heroic, idyllic, allegoric, mythic, symbolic, in which “scale” had so strayed and lost itself that the public square and the chimney-piece seemed to have changed places, the monumental being all diminutive and the diminutive all monumental


The Tree of Knowledge – study resources

The Tree of Knowledge The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Tree of Knowledge The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Tree of Knowledge Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon UK

The Tree of Knowledge Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon US

The Tree of Knowledge The Tree of Knowledge – Digireads reprint edition – Amazon UK

The Tree of Knowledge The Tree of Knowledge – eBook formats at Gutenberg Consortia

The Tree of Knowledge The Tree of Knowledge – read the story on line

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Red button The Prefaces of Henry James – Introductions to his tales and novels

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

Red button Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, biography, study resources


The Tree of Knowledge – plot summary

Part I. Peter Brench is a bachelor and a writer of sorts who is very friendly with Morgan Mallow, a hopelessly untalented sculptor who gives himself great airs and lives on his wife’s money. Brench has been a long time admirer of Mrs Mallow and is godfather to her son Lance. Brench keeps to himself his belief that Mallow lacks talent, whilst Mrs Mallow helps to support the idea that her husband is an unrecognised genius.

Part II. When Lance comes of age he announces that he is giving up studying at Cambridge in favour of going to Paris to become an artist of some kind. Brench tries to dissuade him – without success. Mallow meanwhile recieves a commission from a wealthy Canadian to carve a tombstone.

Part III. Lance eventually returns from Paris, revealing to Peter Brench that he now realises the truth about his father’s lack of talent. Brench shares his own opinions, but asks him to conceal the truth for the sake of his mother’s feelings.

Part IV. Lance returns to Paris, but his father begins to put pressure on him to produce some tangible evidence of success. When Lance feels he can longer remain silent regarding his father’s fraudulence, he reveals to Brench that his mother has confessed to him that she too all along has secretly known about her husband’s lack of talent.


Principal characters
Peter Brench bachelor (50) and ‘writer’
Morgan Mallow his friend, a sculptor
Mrs Mallow Mallow’s wife
Lance (Lancelot) their son
Egidio their Italian footman

Henry James portrait

Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant


Henry James's study

Henry James’s study


Further reading

Biographical

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

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


Other works by Henry James

Henry James Washington SquareWashington Square (1880) is a superb early short novel, It’s the tale of a young girl whose future happiness is being controlled by her strict authoritarian (but rather witty) father. She is rather reserved, but has a handsome young suitor. However, her father disapproves of him, seeing him as an opportunist and a fortune hunter. There is a battle of wills – all conducted within the confines of their elegant New York town house. Who wins out in the end? You will probably be surprised by the outcome. This is a masterpiece of social commentary, offering a sensitive picture of a young woman’s life.
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon US

 

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 – 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.

Henry James web links Henry James on the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations of James’s novels and stories for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors and actors, production features, film reviews, box office, and even quizzes.

© Roy Johnson 2012


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