Paste (story)

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"Paste"
Author Henry James
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Short story
Published in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly
Publication type Periodical
Media type Print (Magazine, Hardback & Paperback)
Publication date December 1899

"Paste" is a 5,800-word short story by Henry James first published in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly in December, 1899. James included the story in his collection, The Soft Side, published by Macmillan the following year. James conceived the story as a clever reversal of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace".

Plot summary[edit]

After the death of her aunt, the protagonist Charlotte and her cousin, her aunt’s stepson Arthur Prime, find a tin of imitation jewelry which includes a string of pearls. Charlotte is immediately fascinated with the pearls, and wonders if they could be a gift from when her aunt was an actress. Arthur disputes this and is insulted at the thought of some gentleman other than his father giving his stepmother such a gift. Charlotte quickly apologizes and agrees that the pearls could be nothing more than paste. With Arthur’s enthusiastic approval, she keeps the jewelry for the memory of her aunt.

When Charlotte returns to her governess' job, her friend, Mrs. Guy, asks her if she has anything to add color to her dress for an upcoming party. When Charlotte shows Mrs. Guy the jewelry, she too becomes fascinated with the string of pearls, insisting that they are genuine. Mrs. Guy wears the string to the party; and when Charlotte finds out that everyone believed that they were real, she insists that they must be returned to her cousin. Mrs. Guy claims that it was Arthur's foolishness to have given away the necklace, and that Charlotte should have no guilt in keeping it.

However, Charlotte decides to return the pearls to her cousin, who still refuses to consider that the pearls could be real. A month later Mrs. Guy shows her a wonderful string of pearls, telling Charlotte that they are the same ones that Charlotte had inherited from her aunt. Charlotte is surprised because Arthur claimed he had shattered them, when in fact he had sold them to the store where Mrs. Guy bought them.

Major themes[edit]

"Paste" is one of James' briefest and lightest fictions, but the story explores the contrast between reality and illusion that often fascinated its author in such longer and weightier tales as The Turn of the Screw. By his own account in the New York Edition preface, James consciously reversed Maupassant's grim melodrama of a fake necklace thought to be real into a pleasant comedy of a real necklace thought to be fake.

In such a very short story the characters can only be sketched in miniature, but they all come into focus. Charlotte is charming and naive, Arthur priggish and pompous, and Mrs. Guy managerial and sensuous. The story ends with a "lurid" suggestion that Mrs. Guy may have obtained the necklace from Arthur in a private transaction rather than at a jewelry store.

Critical evaluation[edit]

James' inclusion of this concise and carefully crafted story in the New York Edition (1907–09) indicated his own high opinion of "Paste", and critics have generally agreed. While hardly one of James' most significant stories, "Paste" shows his underrated ability to turn round in the tight space of the five-to-ten thousand words that editors of his time often demanded. He produced a number of such brief stories in the late 1890s when he was writing prolifically to pay for Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex.

Mrs. Guy has been especially appreciated as one of James' formidable, intimidating women, with a strong undertone of sexuality. James makes it credible that she may have coaxed the necklace away from Arthur instead of buying it in a store.

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