James's "The Real Thing" is an important fictional treatment of the tension between reality and artistic technique. The artist in the story pays so much attention to the social stereotype his models represent that he is unable to penetrate to the human reality beneath the surface.
As James makes clear in his preface to the story, what he is interested in is the pattern or form of the work--its ability to transcend mere narrative and communicate something illustrative, something conceptual: "I must be very clear as to what is in this idea and what I wish to get out of it. . . . It must be an idea--it can't be a 'story' in the vulgar sense of the word. It must be a picture; it must illustrate something. . . something of the real essence of the subject."
Although James's artist in the story insists that he cherishes "human accidents" and that what he hates most is being ridden by a type, the irony James explores is that the only way an artist can communicate character is to create a patterned picture that illustrates something; there is no such thing as a "human accident" in a story.
As James argues in "The Art of Fiction," a work of art is not a copy of life, but far different, "a personal, a direct impression of life." James says the supreme virtue of a work of fiction is "the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life." The emphasis for James is on "impression" and "illusion"--both of which create and derive from artistic form and pattern.
"The Real Thing" is constructed on a series of ambiguous antinomies: the real versus appearance; the real versus the representative; the real versus the unreal; the real versus the ideal; morality versus aesthetics; perfection versus imperfection; pride versus humility; interpretation versus imitation; the It-Thou versus the I-It.
Our definition of what is "real" in the story constantly shifts. At first, the Monarchs seem to be the real thing; then we think that the real thing can only be the created thing; finally, we see that the Monarchs are the real thing after all. If the artist's task is to perceive and reveal the real thing, which may lie beneath the surface of the apparent thing, then the painter in this story fails to be an artist, as he himself recognizes when he says he should liked to have been able to paint the glance on Mrs. Monarch's face.
However, the very fact that by his telling of the story called "The Real Thing" the narrator is able to penetrate to the real character of the Monarchs is an indication of his development as an artist.
Tomorrow: John Barth's "Autobiography"