Places: The Aspern Papers

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1888

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedJuliana’s palace

Juliana’s Aspern Papers, Thepalace. Venetian home of the American expatriate Juliana Bordereau. Arriving at this home by gondola via one of Venice’s hundreds of canals, the unnamed narrator observes not only his expensive quarters and the stairway from them down to Juliana’s receiving room but also her hallway, her doors, the location of her and Tina’s private rooms, and their tattered garden. A main feature of Juliana’s bedroom is her old secretary desk, in which the narrator concludes the Aspern papers are secreted. His late-night advance toward the desk is imaged as a combination of the military and the sexual. His being seen and thwarted by Juliana amounts to an ignominious retreat and an embarrassing rebuff.

Tina’s garden

Tina’s garden. Garden of Juliana’s niece, or grandniece, Tina Bordereau (called Tita in the original edition of the novel). The narrator courts Juliana’s favor by planting flowers and bombarding her “citadel” with bouquets. The garden becomes edenic when Juliana, with devilish intent, encourages the narrator to tryst there with innocent Tina, who promises to help him. Juliana’s death causes trouble, because Tina, at best a twisted Eve, will surrender the papers only upon condition of marriage. Ultimately the narrator suffers expulsion.


*Venice. Northeastern Italian city famous for its avenues of canals. In lacking streets and vehicles and having sociable pedestrians, Venice strikes the narrator as communal, even apartment-like–ironically, because the Bordereaus become no family for him. He delights in the Piazza of San Marco but never prays in its beckoning church. He takes Tina to Florian’s, a restaurant famous for its ices. He goes to the Lido, Venice’s famous beach, but never bathes. At sunset he stands before the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, the cruel Venetian mercenary, again, ironically, because though also cruel and greedy the narrator is both dwarfed by the lofty statue and unsuccessful in his mission.

The sinuous waterways of Venice, along which the narrator often moves between the palazzo and the main parts of town, both alone, sometimes aimlessly, and once with Tina, symbolize by means of alternate sunshine and darkness his mental maze, combining ambition, hopes, doubts, worries, and gloom.

BibliographyBell, Millicent. “The Aspern Papers: The Unvisitable Past.” In Meaning in Henry James. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Insightful examination of James’s own “second thoughts” as revealed in a preface written twenty years later for a revised edition. Bell’s examination of James’s revisions is particularly enlightening.Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. An acclaimed James scholar’s biographical criticism is original and pertinent.Hocks, Richard A. Henry James: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Contains a challenging exposition of critic Dennis Pahl’s “deconstruction” of The Aspern Papers, relatively free of critical jargon. Good discussion of the story’s “framing device.”Neider, Charles, ed. Short Novels of the Masters. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. A reliable introduction to the novella–sensible, concise, and literate.Perosa, Sergio. “Henry James: The Aspern Papers.” In Leon Edel and Literary Art, edited by Lyall H. Powers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988. A unique perspective from an Italian professor of Anglo-American literature.
Categories: Places