The Path of Duty

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

The Path of Duty first appeared in magazine form in The English Illustrated Magazine in December 1884, which had been established the year previously by Macmillan to create a publication with high production values and illustrations appealing to the artistic market. The story was later reprinted in a three volume collection of James’s stories in 1885.

The Path of Duty

The Path of Duty – critical commentary

The burden of inheritance

This story is a variation on the theme of fear of marriage or burden of inheritance – both of which are very deeply buried seams in the sub-stratum of homo-eroticism which runs through much of James’s work. He would explore these issues in more direct form in the later tale Owen Wingrave (1892) in which the burden of responsibility and fear of reproduction goes as far as a sort of willed death. The theme normally depicts women as predators, marriage as a social expectation which is experienced as a threat, and various strategies or plot twists to avoid the requirement of producing children.

Ambrose Tester is not only due to inherit his family title; he has the additional burden, placed upon him by his own father, of the demand that he produce an offspring. Not only that, but he must do so as quickly as possible. His father wants to see the continuity of the Tester family before he dies. The title of the story reinforces this notion of an unpleasant responsibility.

The burden of inheritance is also intensified because Ambrose had an elder brother, who would normally have borne the responsibility of producing an heir for his father and continuing the family line. But Francis was profligate, and has died. Meanwhile, Ambrose has chosen as the object of his affections a married woman – a sure way to avoid the possibility of marriage.

This interpretation of the story is ultimately a psycho-analytic reading which rests on the notion that Henry James was exploring psychological conflicts of his own via fictional projections. We know that James wrestled with the question of marriage in his private life – and always came down in favour of remaining a bachelor. We also know that rather late in life he gave way to the homo-erotic impulses which also surface more and more frequently in his work.

He destroyed all his private papers in an effort to preserve control of what would be known about him by his contemporaries – and posterity. But the theme is explored again and again in his creative work, over which he had no such control.

The Narrator

James has very few stories with female narrators, and this one, un-named like so many others, seems to have a somewhat hermaphroditic personality. ‘She’ claims that she wishes to marry off her women friends, but to prevent the marriage of her men friends. Is this the voice of James himself, hiding behind the not very plausible skirts of his narrator?

Certainly when Ambrose does finally settle for Jocelind, the anti-marriage rhetoric is unleashed in no uncertain terms. The narrator reports that ‘the day of his execution was fixed’ and then ‘he was going to be beheaded’. The supposed female narrator seems to be speaking from a very masculine point of view at this point.

The happy ending

Unlike other explorations of the ‘fear of marriage’ theme, this story does have an ostensibly happy ending. Ambrose marries Jocelind, and they have two children. He has renounced Lady Vandeleur, and has accepted his lot. The problem appears to have been resolved.

But is everybody happy? Certainly not Jocelind, and maybe not the reader – because this ending does not seem very satisfactory, for the simple reason that no plausible explanation has been given for the radical change of mind on Ambrose’s part.

One minute he is in love with the vibrant Lady Vandeleur, who is fully realised as a character in the story. The next, he accepts marriage to Jocelind, who is an un-dramatised cipher. It is possible that James was unable to provide a convincing resolution to the initial problem the story explores – precisely because he didn’t really believe in the outcome he created.

The Path of Duty – study resources

The Path of Duty The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Path of Duty The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Path of Duty Complete Stories 1884—1891 – Library of America – Amazon UK

Th ePath of Duty Complete Stories 1884—1891 – Library of America – Amazon US

The Path of Duty The Path of Duty – Kindle edition

The Path of Duty The Path of Duty – eBook versions at Gutenberg

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

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

The Path of Duty – plot summary

The story is narrated by an un-named American woman who is married to an Englishman. She is writing the account for a ‘compatriot’ American, but appears to be ambivalent about revealing the story. The recipient is addressed directly in the text, but the narrator says she will not release the final product.

Part I. Young Ambrose Tester inherits a title and an estate. He confides in the narrator, has a seat in parliament to represent Dorset, and is much admired in society.

Part II. Ambrose’s father has pressured him to get married. Ambrose procrastinates, then agrees to marry within a year. He is very friendly with Lady Vandeleur, but she is married to a boring husband. But after six moths he is engaged to Jocelind Bernardstone.

Part III. The match is considered a great social success, but the narrator notes Ambrose’s lack of enthusiasm and thinks he is doing it to please his father. He is marrying out of a sense of duty, and the narrator thinks he would do better to marry a plain or stupid woman who would accept his lack of interest (and by implication, tolerate his continued interest in Lady Vandeleur).

Part IV. Ambrose visits the narrator with the news that Lord Vandeleur is very ill. The implication is that if he dies, Ambrose will be free to marry Lady Vandeleur. The narrator knows that this will hurt Jocelind, and gives him no encouragement. Lord Vandeleur does die, and Ambrose goes to visit his own father, who is also ill.

Part V. Ambrose visits the narrator and appeals for her help. He wishes to break off his engagement and marry Lady Vandeleur. The narrator refuses to help him. Ambrose continues to be ‘kind’ to Jocelind, who suspects nothing. The narrator argues that he should honour his promises and marry a woman he does not truly love. Amongst his friends, opinion is divided. Suddenly Jocelind’s father General Bernardstone dies, and the marriage is postponed. Jocelind and her mother go to stay with Sir Edmund Tester.

Part VI. When Ambrose next meets the narrator, he reveals that he has not actually asked Lady Vandeleur to marry him, and he has not told her about Jocelind. He wants the narrator to visit Lady Vandeleur on his behalf, but she refuses. He claims he is trying to break off with Lady Vandeleur, and she agrees to help him if he will fulfil his promise to Jocelind.

Part VII. The narrator visits Lady Vandeleur and finds her in something of a pitiable state. She wonders why Ambrose should wish to marry her, and obviously still does not know about Jocelind. The narrator reveals all, and tells her that Jocelind will surely die if she is jilted. Lady Vandeleur replies that she has no intention of marrying Ambrose, and that if he does anything to hurt Jocelind, she will never speak to him again.

Part VIII. Plans for the wedding go ahead, and Lady Vandeleur writes to Ambrose that she cannot possibly profit from someone else’s distress. The narrator worries that Ambrose is making a heroic renunciation, but is still secretly clinging to his feelings for Lady Vandeleur, The marriage to Jocelind goes ahead, and subsequently, Ambrose and Lady Vandeleur become famous in society for the sacrifice they have made – but Jocelind is not so happy.

Principal characters
I the outer narrator, a married American woman
You the American ‘compatriot’ to whom the work is addressed
Sir Edmund Tester father to Ambrose
Francis Tester his eldest son, a waster who dies
Ambrose Tester his younger son, who inherits the title, an MP with a golden moustache
Lady Margaret Vandeleur a sophisticated society lady, with whom Ambrose is enamoured
Lord Vandeleur her boring husband
Jocelind Bernardstone fiancée to Ambrose

Henry James's Study

Henry James’s study

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 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 2013

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