This article contains the summary and analysis of Henry James’ unusual gothic ghost story The Last of the Valerri (1874).
This article series provides a summary of The Last of the Valerri, 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 a ghost story that hasn’t so much got a dark feel, but tells about an old pagan deity. But it causes some inconvenience and stirs up some truths about the main characters and raises some conflict in the character’s lives.
The Last of the Valerii (1874)
The story is narrated by a painter who is the godfather of Martha. The story begins when Martha introduces to him her new fiancé an Italian Count Camillo Valerio. ‘He had a sunken depth of expression, and a grave, slow smile, suggesting no great quickness of wit, but an unimpassioned intensity of feeling which promised well for Martha’s happiness.’ After their marriage Martha is as much in love with the Count as with his villa in Rome and to restore it to its old grandeur. She even sets her heart into making the gardens an archeological site, for ancient treasure may be hidden in the earth.
The only thing the young couple can’t agree on is their religion. While Martha is a devout Catholic, Camillo is raised a Catholic, but doesn’t care for it, while Martha is willing to renounce her faith. But Camillo convinces her that everyone is entitled to their own religion or faith. ‘Their life was a childlike interchange of caresses as candid and unmeasured as those of a shepherd and shepherdess in a bucolic poem.’
While the painter is their guest he notices something in the Count. ‘But he seemed to me to have either a strange reserve or a strange simplicity; to be fundamentally unfurnished with “ideas.” He had no beliefs nor hopes nor fears, – nothing but sense, appetites, and serenely luxurious tastes. As I watched him strolling about looking at his finger-nails, I often wondered whether he had anything that could properly be termed a soul, and whether good health and good-nature were not the sum of his advantages.’ The painter worries that if Martha grew tired of his looks, he would have nothing intelligible to offer. ‘One accomplishment indeed the Count possessed which would make him an agreeable playfellow; he carried in his pocket a collection of precious fragments of antique pavement, – bits of porphyry and malachite and lapis and basalt, – disinterred on his own soil and brilliantly polished by use.’
The Count reluctantly lets Martha search for treasure. ‘“Let them lie, the poor disinherited gods, the Minerva, the Apollo, the Ceres you are so sure of finding,” he said, “ and don’t break their rest. What do you want of them? We can’t worship them? If you can’t believe in them, don’t disturb them. Peace be with them!”’
His attitude changes immediately when they indeed find an old statue in the likeness of Juno. ‘Then full in the sun and flashing it back, almost, in spite of her dusky incrustations, I beheld, propped up with stones against a heap of earth, a majestic marble image. She seemed to me almost colossal (…) Her marvelous beauty gave her an almost human look, and her absent eyes seemed to wonder back at us.’
The Count changed from thereon. He placed Juno in the Casino which he locked up and nobody but him was permitted to look at her. He had become silent and paid no more attention to his wife. To her dismay as well as the painter’s. He seemed possessed. But he himself proclaimed he was ‘prodigiously happy!’ He had found his new faith in the old gods. ‘It was in the caves and woods and streams, in earth and air and water, they dwelt.’
The painter searches within for a solution. The explorer tells him: ‘But I have fumbled so long in the monstrous heritage of antiquity, But I have learned a multitude of secrets; learned that ancient relics may work modern miracles. There’s a pagan element in all of us, – I don’t speak for you, illustrissimi forestier, – and the old gods have still there worshippers. The old spirit still thorns here and there, and the Signer Conte has his share of it.’
He decides to tell Martha what he has discovered. He tells her about the Count’s worships and when they go to the Casino they find an altar with blood on it and the Count is missing. Martha then decides to take the Juno down and bury her where they found her, to entrust her to the earth. This seems to break the spell and when the Count returns home, he looks at his wife with wonder and love.
This isn’t so much a ghost story but a pagan tale of ancient gods of nature that still have a spell over us. Although the emphasis lies on the Count, who is affected for the worse, the sense of nature shines through the whole story. Seen through the eyes of a painter he not only describes the splendor of nature but also paints it. But while this is only in a two dimensional way, it affects the Count in his being, his soul if you may, a soul the painter doubted he had. Maybe the empty space is filled with the beauty of Juno, until Martha herself removes it and he sees her natural beauty. Juno was after all, the goddess of women and marriage.
But there’s more to the story, for the overseer of the excavation is described as a dwarfish figure, an urchin and so is his demeanor, almost as if he has something underworldly about him. His digging descends them into the earth, digging up Juno. When gazing upon her the Count descends, a trip to his underworld, unearthing his own beliefs, separated from the world above and his wife. It’s also about religion, each their own, and communicated that people’s heritage isn’t only culture and looks, but religion as well, rooted deeply inside. It’s a story about nature and human nature, while living in a modern age.
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: Owen Wingrave [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Real Right Thing [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