Guest’s Confession

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

Guest’s Confession first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly for October—November 1872. It was reprinted years later as part of Travelling Companions published after James’s death in 1919.

Guest's Confession

Guest’s Confession – plot summary

Part I.   The narrator David is waiting for his elder step-brother to arrive during the summer holidays in a small town. David’s account of his brother emphasises the differences and rivalry between them. Walking in the countryside, he enters a small church during a rainstorm to find that the organ is being played by a young woman. He sings along to her playing, and they exchange pleasantries.

When the rain stops he goes to meet Edgar, his step-brother, reflecting critically on his egoism. When he arrives, Edgar is full of neurotic self-concern, and he reveals that he has been swindled out of twenty thousand dollars by a man called John Guest.

Part II.   Shortly afterwards they walk out in the village and encounter John Guest in the company of a coquettish woman Mrs Clara Beck. Edgar immediately wishes to challenge Guest, but David sees positive qualities in the handsome and debonair figure. Edgar has appointed solicitors. Guest pleads for ‘understanding’ and restraint.

The two men argue their cases. Guest accuses Edgar of being insane. David suggests that as a compromise, Guest should write out an apology. .Edgar demands that Guest kneel before him and beg for forgiveness. In addition to his demand for the money, he then dictates a confession which he forces Guest to sign. When Guest’s daughter Laura arrives to collect him, she turns out to be the same woman David met in the church.

Part III.   David feels disconcerted by his divided loyalties and by his part in the scene of humiliation. He meets Laura again in the village, along with her chaperone Mrs Beck. He spends more and more time with them whilst Guest is back in New York, and he feels increasingly frustrated by Mrs Beck’s constant presence.

Mr Crawford arrives claiming cousinship with Mrs Beck, and David sees that he is paying court to her. The two men compare their respective ‘intentions’ and ‘claims’ regarding the two women.

Part IV.   David wishes to pursue his interest in Laura but worries about what she will think if she learns of the part he played in her father’s shame. She however does not take him very seriously and thinks he is spoiled, idle, and too rich. She reveals that he reminds her of her father – because they are both honest and youthful-looking.

David teases Mrs Beck about her choice of Guest or Crawford as the object of her affections. Guest writes from New York to his daughter Laura, telling her he has had to sell their house. David suggests that this would be a good opportunity to go to live in Italy. He plays the organ in the church for her, then declares his love for her and offers her money to help her father. She refuses both offers.

Part V.   Edgar is still ill in bed when he receives news that Guest has repaid his debt, but Edgar refuses to return the signed ‘confession’. Guest returns from New York, and Mrs Beck switches her attentions to him, away from Crawford. David makes an appeal to Laura before her father can reveal what he knows about him to her. But when Guest confronts them both he excoriates David completely, and will accept no apology or compromise. David asks Laura to be patient, and meanwhile attends Edgar, who is dying. Edgar leaves David nothing in his will, but puts aside twenty thousand dollars to found a hospice. However, David inherits the confession as part of Edgar’s effects. He tries to re-negotiate with Guest, but they quarrel again.

Part VI.   Having heard of Guest’s money problems, Mrs Beck switches her attentions back to Crawford. David refuses to return the confession when Guest asks for it. When he next meets Guest he presents him with an ultimatum: remove the objection to his marrying Laura, or he will show her the confession. But following a bucolic epiphany, David returns to a completely distraught Guest and burns the confession in front of him. He then feels free to ‘claim’ Laura.

Principal characters
David the rich, vain, and self-regarding narrator
Edgard Musgrave his invalid, older, clever step-brother
John Guest a handsome swindler who has been ill
Laura Guest his daughter
Mrs Clara Beck a childish and coquettish chaperone of thirty-six
Mr Crawford the owner of a silver mine in Arizona

Study resources

Guest's Confession The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

Guest's Confession The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

Guest's Confession Complete Stories 1864—1874 – Library of America – Amazon UK

Guest's Confession Complete Stories 1864—1874 – Library of America – Amazon US

Guest's Confession Guest’s Confession – eBook formats 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

Guest's Confession - Henry James portrait

Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant

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 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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