A Light Man

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

A Light Man first appeared in The Galaxy magazine in July 1869. Its first appearance (heavily revised) in book form was in the collection Stories by American Authors published in New York by Scribner in 1884.

A Light Man

A Light Man – critical commentary

It is interesting that the quotation at the head of this tale is from Robert Browning – who is famous both for his dramatic monologues and his use of dubious ‘narrators’. One thinks for instance of the Duke in My Last Duchess who is explaining away with apparent sang froid the fact that he has had his former wife murdered.

First person narrators may be honest; they may be misguided; and they may be outright liars. Henry James was alert to the possibilities of this literary device from the earliest days of his writing career, and is famous for the use he made of it in his later works, such as the very complex situation he creates in The Turn of the Screw.

A Light Man seems to be a study in both ambiguity and the unreliable narrator. – but one which does not quite resolve itself to any satisfactory conclusion.

At one level, Max is quite honest in revealing that he is both hypocritical and insincere. He is an empty man emotionally and spiritually, and yet he tells us so. He has no ambition, and eventually thinks he ought to marry a rich woman just for something to do. He describes himself as an ‘adventurer’.

But his account of Sloane reveals his most disgusting characteristics. Whilst accepting the comforts of his host’s hospitality, he unleashes a torrent of criticism belittling and criticising him. .

Yet in his final dealings with Theodore in the conflict over Sloane’s will, he expresses a wish to remain friendly with Theodore. This is either completely insincere or yet another level of his duplicity. The narrative offers few clues about how this should be interpreted.

And of course at the end of the story he is waiting for Miss Meredith – the woman who has inherited from her wealthy relative Sloane and who will fit the template for a rich wife Max has created for himself.

The only way the story makes more sense and these inconsistencies and contradictions can be resolved, is to see it as a lightly coded study of Sloane as an aged homosexual paying for the attention of two much younger men who are vying with each other to be his favourite. The extensive revisions made to the text after its first publication support this reading.

A Light Man – study resources

A Light Man The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

A Light Man The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

A Light Man Complete Stories 1864—1874 – Library of America – Amazon UK

A Light Man Complete Stories 1864—1874 – Library of America – Amazon US

A Light Man A Light Man – paperback reprint – Amazon UK

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

A Light Man – plot summary

The narrative takes the form of a diary written by Maximus (Max) Austin, who has returned to his native America after living in Europe. He receives a letter from his friend Theodore Lisle inviting him to spend a month with Frederick Sloane at his house in the country. Sloane is old and infirm, but a bon viveur, and he has embarked on writing his memoirs.

Max recounts the story of his friend Theodore, who returned from living in Europe to look after his sisters. He then became ill, and finally got the job of amanuensis to Sloane, which Max sees as a demeaning role.

Sloane invites Max to stay on at the house. Max gives an account of his own nature, which reveals him as complacent, uncreative, and self-congratulatory. He can think of nothing to do with his life, and decides he might as well look for a rich wife.

He provides a hypocritical summary of his host’s life: Sloane married a rich woman who died young; he has spent most of his life (and fortune) living in Europe, and has returned to America to restore his present home. He has had a succession of hangers-on living with him. Max’s account becomes a vituperative character assassination of his host.

When Theodore falls ill, Sloane implores Max to stay with him as a form of surrogate son, and he begins to be critical of Theodore, whose role Max takes over. Theodore receives letters from his sister, which Sloane uses as a pretext to get rid of him. Theodore discusses his insecurity with Max, who thinks of his friend as merely a vulgar fortune hunter.

Max tells Sloane he must leave to find employment in New York, because he has no money – at which Sloane offers to alter his will if Max will stay (the implication being that the will is currently made in Theodore’s favour). When slightly recovered, Sloane asks Max to retrieve his will, with a view to destroying it.

But when Max goes to fetch the will, Theodore has it. They discuss its contents without actually reading it. Theodore burns the will, then the two men challenge each other. Theodore believes that Max has usurped his position and hoped to gain the property: Max unconvincingly claims innocence and says he wishes to remain friends.

Meanwhile, Sloane dies. His estate will go to a distant niece, Miss Meredith, for whom Max is waiting at the end of the story.

Principal characters
Maximus Austin the American narrator (32)
Theodore Lisle his old friend
Frederick Sloane a rich widower (72)

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 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

© Roy Johnson 2013

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.

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