This article contains the summary and analysis of Henry James’ gothic ghost story The Real Right Thing (1899).
This article series provides a summary of The Real Right Thing, the ending or the twist and a short analysis.
Henry James (1843-1916) was an American Author of literary realism and literary modernism. But he has also written ghost stories, stories of the supernatural and the spiritual. His themes compose romance, the fear of marriage, the doppelgänger motif and of course the supernatural that subtly sneaks into real life, ever posing the question if the paranormal is real or not. Often with an unreliable narrator, told in the first person, the events can be explained either by the existence of a real ghost or something that the mind conjured up. His ghost story genre lies in the genre of Romance, where the magical co-exists with everyday life, which creates an eerie uncanny feeling. His stories are always based in the real world of human action, psychology and morality. It therefore is up to the reader to interpret the story as they wish, which can lead to wonderful lively discussions.
This article contains one of his ghost stories that deals with a haunting of a ghost. The haunting of the ghosts reflects and represents the emotional feelings of the haunted persons..
The Real Right Thing (1899)
When Ashton Doyne, a great and respected writer dies, his wife asks a young writer and friend of Doyne, George Withermore, to write his biography. Although he is very honored he isn’t certain if he is the right person to write Ashton’s biography. Nor is he certain if his wife knew him very well. But at Doyle’s house, he is appointed his study and a lot of material, papers, documents, letters, journals, notes and much more to delve through to make a truthful biography. This makes him feel closer to him. ‘And after a little one of them said, with the other’s deep assent – it didn’t matter which: “It’s here that we’re with him.” But it was definitely the young man who put it, before they left the room, that it was there he was with them.’
The longer he spends in the study of his old friend the more he senses his presence. ‘“He does seem so near,” said Withermore. “To you too?” This naturally struck him. “He does then to you?” Both he and Doyne’s wife feel his presence. ‘When once this fancy had begun to hang about him he welcomed it, persuaded it, encouraged it, quite cherished it, looking forward all day to feeling it renew itself in the evening, and waiting for the evening very much as one of a pair of lovers might wait for the hour of their appointment.’ (…) ‘Withermore rejoiced indeed at moments to feel this certitude: there were times of dipping deep into some of Doyne’s secrets when it was particularly pleasant to be able to hold that Doyne desired him, as it were, to know him.’ (…) ‘There were moments, for instance, when, as he bent over his paper, the light breath of his dead host was as distinctly in his hair as his own elbows were on the table before him.’ And at the same time, ‘(…) he had heard documents on the table behind him gently shifted and stirred, and literally, on his return, found some letter he had mislaid pushed again into view, some wilderness cleared by the opening of an old journal at the very date he wanted.’ As if Doyne’s ghost was helping him.
But after a few months, it becomes very quiet in the house and in the study. Withermore struggles as if to understand why he doesn’t feel Doyne’s presence anymore. He even gets a little nervous. When he spots Mrs Doyne at the top of the stairs they both know that neither of them had felt Doyne. They start wondering what’s the matter. ‘“I only want to do the real right thing,” she replied after a moment.’ Maybe he has made a mistake, did he take a wrong point of view, or had he benightedly falsified or inadequately insisted? But then Mrs Doyne declares ‘He’s there.’
Withermore questions if Doyne likes the world to know about him. ‘“We lay him bare. We serve him up.”’ And no-one has asked him or could do so now. ‘“What I did think, at first – that what he wishes to make us feel is his sympathy? Because, in my original simplicity, I was mistaken. I was – I don’t know what to call it – so excited and charmed that I didn’t understand. But I understand at last. He only wanted to communicate. He strains forward out of his darkness; he reaches toward us out of his mystery; he makes us dim signs out of his horror.”’
So Withermore wants to confront Doyne in his study, ask his presence for an answer. Soon, he returns to Mrs Doyne. ‘“I give up.” “Then you’ve seen him?” “On the threshold – guarding it.”
The key to the story lies in the title. What is the real right thing? Is it about the biography itself? Can it be real without the consent of Ashton Doyne himself? Or is it about the ghost of Ashton, is the presence real? It really doesn’t matter. For it’s about both and the combination that conjures up a real or imagined ghost, watching his wife and friend tempering with his legacy. They might both be not the right choices either to decide for or write a biography. Also the narrative contains some homoerotic writing, that could be the real right thing, that was the secret Withermore was reading about. Maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do, to out him that way to the world. The ghost hovering over them could be their guilt or repentance towards Ashton. Maybe the real right thing was to let the dead rest in peace.
Read more about Henry James:
- Henry James: The Turn of the Screw [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Altar of the Dead [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Beast in the Jungle [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: De Grey A Romance [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Ghostly Rental [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Great Good Place [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Jolly Corner [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Last of the Valerri [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James : Owen Wingrave [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Romance of a Certain Old Clothes [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: Sir Edmund Orme [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Third Person [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Way It Came [Summary & Analysis]
- The Turn of the Screw (Henry James) review