The Aspern Papers Summary & Study Guide

This Study Guide consists of approximately 34 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Aspern Papers.
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The Aspern Papers Summary & Study Guide Description

The Aspern Papers Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on The Aspern Papers by Henry James.

James, Henry. “The Aspern Papers.” The Aspern Papers and Other Tales. Ed. Michael Gorra. Pages 50-145. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.

The story’s unnamed narrator is an American literary critic and editor. The narrator’s literary and professional interests are largely oriented around renowned American poet Jeffrey Aspern, who died decades earlier. The narrator travels from America to Venice, Italy, as that is where a woman named Juliana Bordereau lives. Juliana, now a very old woman, was Jeffrey Aspern’s lover when Aspern was alive. The narrator believes that Juliana may possess letters from Aspern, although she does not seem willing to part with them or show them to other people.

The narrator arrives at Juliana’s home and presents himself under a fake name. The house is palatial but desolate and neglected. The only people inside are Juliana, her middle-aged grand-niece Tita, and their maidservant Olimpia. Without revealing his identity or his interest in Aspern, the narrator says that he is an American scholar who wishes to pay for lodging in the house. Juliana accepts the proposal and charges the narrator a high price. Tita informs the narrator that Juliana wants the money so that she has money to leave to Tita when Juliana dies.

Over the next three months, the narrator makes no progress in attempting to win the Bordereaus’ favor. Juliana and Tita are highly reclusive. The narrator pays to have the house’s outdoor garden revitalized, and one day, he encounters Tita in the garden. He finds Tita to be fairly innocent and simple-minded. He reveals some elements of his true identity to her and expresses his interest in Aspern. Soon after, Juliana calls on the narrator to converse with him. It is unclear to him whether Juliana has discerned his true motives. A few days later, the narrator and Tita go on a gondola ride together. He tries to enlist Tita to his mission of obtaining the letters. Tita affirms the letters’ existence and says that she will try to help the narrator, but she also says that she is generally unable to disobey Juliana.

Later, the narrator informs Juliana that he is a literary critic, editor, and historian. Juliana responds by saying that it is wrong to scrutinize the past. Juliana then presents the narrator with a portrait of Jeffrey Aspern, but the narrator pretends that he does not know of Aspern. Eventually, Juliana falls ill. The narrator considers searching her room while she is asleep. He at first views the idea as morally repugnant, but he ultimately gives into temptation and searches the room for the letters. He does so when it seems that Juliana is asleep, but Juliana catches him in the act.

The next morning, the narrator departs from the house in shame. He decides at first that the only moral thing to do is leave the Bordereaus’ alone, but his desire for the letters draws him back to the house. By the time he arrives, Juliana has passed away. Tita proposes marriage to the narrator, saying that if they were married, Tita could show him the letters without moral compunction. The narrator rejects the proposal, as the proposal has reawakened him to the immorality and deceitfulness of his mission. However, his desire for the letters draws him back to the house again. He says that he is prepared to accept the proposal. However, Tita informs him that she has burned the letters. The narrator returns home to America, and he still occasionally feels a sense of longing for the letters.

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