The Pupil

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

The Pupil first appeared in Longman’s Magazine for March—April 1891. It next appeared in the collection The Lesson of the Master published in New York and London by Macmillan in 1919. .

The Pupil - Henry James portrait

Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant

The Pupil – critical commentary

Towards the end of the nineteenth century (and into the twentieth) Henry James wrote a number of works whose subjects were dysfunctional families and the neglect of children. One thinks of What Masie Knew (1897) and
The Awkward Age (1899) but the most obvious dramatic parallel is with The Turn of the Screw (1898). In that tale a governess looking after two young children frightens one of them to death by confronting him with what she thinks is the ghost of a former servant Peter Quint.

In The Pupil Pemberton is presented with the avaricious and socially demanding notion of the Moreens that he is now responsible for their son Morgan’s welfare. We know that Pemberton has sacrificed time, money, and intellectual energy on the boy’s upbringing – but to be confronted with a quasi-formal suggestion that he assume full responsibility for his charge causes him to hesitate. It is that hesitation which causes the boy to lose faith in his protector, and we are led to believe that the emotional strain precipitates his heart failure.

The homo-erotic theme

It is impossible to read the tale without noticing the very strong element of homo-erotic attachment between the teacher and his pupil. And the attraction appears to be mutual. Quite apart from the touching and glances that are exchanged between the pair, Morgan buys Pemberton a tie in Paris, and Pemberton later reveals that he has kept a lock of the boy’s hair as a souvenir.

I don’t think this has any particular bearing upon the meaning of the story as a whole, but it does show that from an early point in his writing career, James was giving expression to emotional relationships between men (as he was to do later between women in texts such as The Bostonians).

The Pupil – study resources

The Pupil The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Pupil The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Pupil Complete Stories 1874—1884 – Library of America – Amazon UK

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

The Pupil Complete Stories 1874—1884 – Library of America – Amazon US

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

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

The Pupil – plot summary

Part I.   Pemberton, a young graduate of Oxford and Yale University, has spent all his inheritance on a European tour and is forced to seek employment as a private tutor to Morgan Moreen, the precocious younger son of a rich American family living in Nice. He is anxious about his salary and the boy in his charge.

Part II.   Pemberton discovers that the family are polyglot bohemians in an unusual manner and that the boy is supernaturally clever in a way that makes them want to keep a distance from their own son.

Part III.   Pemberton forms a very intimate understanding with Morgan which centres on judgements of the boy’s parents (and which also contains homo-erotic undertones).

Part IV.   After a year the family move to live in Paris, where Pemberton begins to notice that the family neglect their son, whose clothes become old and shabby. Pemberton and Morgan become flaneurs and share a degree of poverty. The Moran family fail to pay Pemberton any salary. He threatens to leave, but has no money to return to England. When they do pay him, he realises that he cannot make the break. He begins to see that the Moreens are ‘adventurers who don’t pay their debts. He also perceives that they are toadies and snobs.

Part V.   Pemberton feels that it would be improper to criticise his parents to the boy, but Morgan himself tells Pemberton that he ought to take flight from their negligence. Pemberton threatens that he will reveal their misdeeds to the boy, and Mrs Mooreen gives him fifty Francs and tells him he ought to be grateful to work for nothing.. They argue about responsibility for the boy, and he refuses the money.

Part VI.   Morgan tells him that a former nurse had left the family for similar reasons: they would not pay her. They discuss the idea of running away together. Morgan knows that his parents are lying and cheating, and wonders what resources they have to survive. They agree that Pemberton should leave at the first opportunity of locating alternative employment, and they feel better now that all the facts of the situation have been revealed and shared.

Part VII.   Morgan wonders why his parents are such louche arrivistes and wishes he could feel less shame on their behalf.The family moves to Venice. Morgan is now fifteen and taller. He feels more prepared to meet the world and thinks to attend Pemberton’s old college at Oxford. Mrs Moreen asks Pemberton to lend her money. When an offer of another tutoring post in England comes up, Pemberton leaves the Moreens.

Part VIII.   Pemberton takes up his post tutoring an ‘opulent youth’ and (rather improbably) sends money to Mrs Moreen. She replies telling him that Morgan is desperately ill. But when Pemberton travels to Paris he discovers that Morgan is not ill at all, and that Mrs Moreen has withheld his letters to Morgan and tricked him into returning. She accuses Pemberton of taking their son away from them, and that he now has full responsibility for staying with them. Morgan meanwhile wants to be taken away from his parents, who he regards as frauds.

Pemberton senses that the family fortunes are about to crash, and he resurrects the idea of running away with Morgan. He uses up all his savings, and the Moreens move to a cheap hotel. When the family crash does occur, they ask him to take charge of Morgan. But the emotional stress of the scene is too much for Morgan, and he dies on the spot.

Principal characters
Pemberton a young tutor, ex Oxford and Yale
The Moreens Americans living in Europe
Morgan Moreen their precociously talented but sickly son
Ulrich Moreen Morgan’s older brother (20)
Paula Moreen Morgan’s sister
Amy Moreen Morgan’s sister

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

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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