In this lesson, you will read about the short novel ‘The Aspern Papers’ by Henry James. The lesson consists of a summary of the important events surrounding the main character’s unique literary quest, followed by a brief analysis of the work.

The Length of the Papers

The Aspern Papers is a short novel, or novella. This just means that it’s longer than a short story but not long enough to be considered a novel. Because of its length, only a handful of characters play important roles in the work: the narrator (the teller of the story, who in this case is also the main character), Juliana, and Tita.

The Search for Aspern’s Papers

The nameless main character, who narrates the story, comes to Venice to acquire some very special documents. He is an American literary scholar whose specialty is the celebrated poet Jeffrey Aspern (a writer made up by James), who died young nearly a century before. He has learned that a woman who inspired some of Aspern’s best poetry is still alive and likely possesses some love letters that he wrote to her. His friend (a fellow scholar) had written to the woman, named Juliana, about the letters and received a harsh reply stating that they did not exist. However, they are convinced that she does in fact have such letters, and the narrator is determined to lay his hands on the precious documents.

The narrator is too upright a citizen to simply break in and steal the letters, but he’s not above good, old-fashioned deception. Juliana and her niece Tita live alone in a huge house. The narrator presents himself as a scholar looking for a place to stay and study, who would also renovate their old, run-down garden for them. Juliana is not interested in having a lodger, until he mentions that he will pay a large sum to rent a few rooms. She agrees to this, and the narrator is delighted to be that much closer to his goal.

He may have gotten in, but actually acquiring the letters proves to be much more difficult. Juliana remains out of sight in her room almost 24/7, and the narrator doesn’t know where she is keeping the letters. His biggest fear is that the old woman will burn the letters when she knows she is about to die. He decides his best chance is to win the trust of Tita and have her save the letters from being burned.

Although Tita herself doesn’t make many appearances, the narrator gradually cultivates a friendly relationship with her. Through casual conversation he finds out that Juliana does in fact have the letters, and that Tita is aware of her relationship with Aspern. After several months in the house, the narrator finally tells Tita the truth. She may be loyal to her aunt, but she sympathizes with him enough that she agrees to do what she can to prevent the destruction of the letters.

One day, Juliana takes ill and appears to be near death. The narrator has no ill intentions, but one thing leads to another and he finds himself in her room. He is reaching for the desk in which he thinks the letters are when she enters and discovers him. Accusing him of being a ‘publishing scoundrel,’ she faints into Tita’s arms. The narrator leaves the next morning and ends up spending 12 days tooling around Venice before returning.

When he gets back, the narrator learns that Juliana has died and been buried. Tita tells him that she prevented her aunt from burning the letters. However, she refuses to show them to him, insinuating that it would be acceptable if he were her husband. When he realizes this unstated condition, the narrator flips out. He becomes embarrassed and, in a daze, again leaves the villa.

After wandering about all day he returns, and the next morning meets with Tita. When he sees her, he is struck with the idea that maybe he could marry her. However, she bids him goodbye and tells him she had burned the letters the night before. No longer having any reason to stay, the narrator departs, to be haunted by regret at the loss of the letters.

Reading the Papers

The narrator’s actions might strike you as a little, well, stalker-ish. In a way, he is pursuing Jeffrey Aspern through Juliana, and his obsession sometimes does threaten to get the better of him. But it would be a mistake to see The Aspern Papers simply as the story of an obsessed man trying to wrestle love letters away from an old woman. For the narrator, it’s not just about the magic of touching something owned by a beloved celebrity or increasing his fame as a scholar. It’s about getting a private glimpse into a gifted mind, about enriching humanity’s store of knowledge (which is what scholars are trying to do, ideally).

One of the most important issues James raises involves property ownership and privacy: is the public ever entitled to access private communications? This question is very relevant today, as the difficulty of keeping personal things private continues to increase. James may not have predicted sex tapes and e-mails, but The Aspern Papers encourages us to think about privacy and when and to whom (and for what reasons) it should be sacrificed.

Lesson Summary

An American scholar arrives in Venice with plans to get his hands on some love letters written by the long-dead poet Jeffrey Aspern. They are held (if they exist, which it turns out they do) by the ancient Juliana, Aspern’s ex-lover. The scholar, who narrates the story, rents some rooms in the house of Juliana and her niece, Tita. He gradually befriends Tita, who will do anything within reason to preserve the letters for him after Juliana’s death. However, she decides she will only let him see them if he marries her, which he is unwilling to do, and so she destroys them. The novella, The Aspern Papers, explores the ethics of the scholar’s deceptive mission. Does the scholarly value of the letters justify the invasion of Juliana’s (and Aspern’s) privacy?