Places: The Tragic Muse

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: serial, 1889-1890; book, 1890

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1880’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Paris

*Paris. Tragic Muse, TheFrance’s capital is the setting of the first few chapters of the novel and several subsequent chapters. British visitors to this many-faceted city find much to delight or disgust them. For Nick Dormer, Paris represents the world of art, the freedom of creative expression, and the aesthetic life. He finds art and beauty in the museums, on the streets, and in the churches and squares, and the city’s atmosphere provides stimulus and inspiration. An elixir to Nick and to Miriam Rooth, an aspiring actress, Paris is threatening to respectable philistines such as Nick’s mother and Julia Dallow, his future fiancé. When faced with the choice of walking through Paris at night, “a huge market for sensations,” or sitting at a café across from a church, Julia opts for the café because it is more respectable. The British tourists traditionally stay in hotels and sightsee on the Right Bank of the Seine River, but at the end of the novel when Nick returns to Paris as a committed artist, he visits “a new Paris,” “a Paris of studios and studies and models” on the Left Bank. Paris encourages the development of the private man, the artist, rather than the public man, the statesman, in Nick Dormer.

*Notre Dame

*Notre Dame. Cathedral on the Ile de la Cité in the heart of Paris. For Nick, this magnificent cathedral, built over the course of several hundred years, represents the beautiful, a work of art that is “done,” completed. James presents the cathedral as a work of art rather than as a religious institution and likens the exterior of the cathedral to a “huge dusky vessel,” “a ship of stone, with its flying buttresses thrown forth like an array of mighty oars.” It is the catalyst that inspires Nick to tell Gabriel Nash, an aesthete, of his desire to become a painter.

*Théâtre Français

*Théâtre Français (tay-ah-tra frahn-say). Now called the Comédie-Française, the national theater, located near the Palais Royal in the heart of Paris. A box seat in this theater becomes Miriam Rooth’s acting school as she and her mother attend the theater nightly. A second step in her schooling is admission to the foyer des artistes, the room backstage where the players can meet select members of the audience between acts. Peter Sherringham escorts her to this room, which, like a temple, is filled with pictures and relics of past thespians. Ironically, Peter proposes to Miriam here, asking her to sacrifice her career. After refusing, Miriam is admitted to a famous actress’s dressing room. The description of the stairs and hall as austere, “monastic,” and conventlike reveal the devotion and possible hardships on the way to success as an actress. The dressing room is success itself–“an inner sanctuary,” which appears “royal.” The descriptions of the various parts of the theater reflect Miriam’s progress from inexperienced to consummate actress.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city is the place to which the British visitors in Paris return to work out their destinies. Under the influence of family and friends in England, Nick dutifully proposes to Julia and runs for Parliament, temporarily ensuring the financial security of his mother and sisters, then resigns to pursue his painting. In a London theater, Miriam Rooth establishes herself as a successful actress. Nick’s studio, on the fictional Rosedale Road, and Miriam’s home, the fictional Balaklava Place, represent the world of artistic exploration and bohemian life in London while Julia’s elegant apartment on the fictional Great Stanhope Street exemplifies the elegant lifestyle of the British upper class.


Harsh. Fictional location of Julia Dallow’s estate in England. There, Nick and Julia row to an island in the lake where, in a small replica of a temple dedicated to Vesta, Nick turns his back on art and proposes to Julia, professing his intention to run for Parliament and become a public man, thus bowing to the wishes of family and friends. Associated with the private and public hearth, this vestal temple is an appropriate place for Nick to dedicate himself to a private home and family and to public service.


Abbey. Ruined old church in Beauclere, the fictional English hometown of Mr. Carteret, Nick’s benefactor and his late father’s best friend. Nick’s changing perception of this old, ruined abbey mirrors his changing attitude toward his career. After he has won a seat in Parliament, Nick visits Beauclere and associates the abbey with incompleteness, in contrast with Notre Dame, and with images of religious and English history, confirming his patriotic decision to serve his country. On a later visit, when Nick has decided to resign his seat in Parliament and pursue a career in art, he sees only the abbey’s beauty.

BibliographyAnderson, Quentin. The American Henry James. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1957. The nature of Henry James’s relation to European culture has to be seen in the light of his American lineage. Devotes a chapter to The Tragic Muse.Auchincloss, Louis. Reading Henry James. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970. Auchincloss, an American novelist, writes from an author’s point of view, with a chapter on the novel.Gard, Roger, ed. Henry James: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1968. A selection of essays on various aspects of James’s work, including the novel.Leyburn, Ellen Douglas. Strange Alloy: The Relation of Comedy to Tragedy in the Fiction of Henry James. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968. For all the seriousness of his stories, James is also continually aware of the comic side of the conduct of his characters, and some of the pleasure in reading his novels lies in how he manipulates tone sometimes so subtly that one has to pay very close attention to not fall victim to his ironies. This book will put one on close guard.Moore, Harry T. Henry James and His World. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1974. A well-illustrated short study of James from childhood until his life in Europe. James’s preoccupations, especially his concerns regarding class and culture, particularly European culture, may be unfamiliar to the contemporary reader; it is helpful to put his novels into the context of the world in which James lived.
Categories: Places