The Pupil

Plot summary

Pemberton, a penniless graduate of Oxford, takes a job to tutor Morgan Moreen, aged eleven, a brilliant and somewhat cynical member of a wandering American family. His mother and father refuse to pay Pemberton as they jump their bills from one hotel to another in Europe. Pemberton grows to dislike all the Moreens except Morgan, including older brother Ulick and sisters Paula and Amy. Morgan, who is afflicted with heart trouble, advises Pemberton to escape his family's baleful influence. But Pemberton stays on because he has come to love and admire his pupil and he hopes for at least some eventual payment. Pemberton finally has to take another tutoring job in London simply to make ends meet. He is summoned back to Paris, though, by a telegram from the Moreens that says Morgan has fallen ill.
It turns out that Morgan is healthy enough, though the fatal day arrives when his family is evicted from their hotel for nonpayment. Morgan's parents beg Pemberton to take their son away with him while they try to find some money. Morgan is ecstatic at the prospect of leaving with Pemberton, but the tutor hesitates. Morgan suddenly collapses with a heart attack and dies. In the story's ironic final note, James says that Morgan's father takes his son's death with the perfect manner of "a man of the world."

Major themes

To use the phrase of James's secretary Theodora Bosanquet, Morgan is one of the novelist's "children of light," people with insight and delicacy who are often ground down by harsh, unforgiving environments. In Morgan's case that environment is tragically provided by his own family. That's why the boy clings so ardently to Pemberton, a tutor who truly appreciates Morgan's ability and decency and offers a possible escape from the deceitful, mediocre Moreen troupe. When the moment of opportunity comes, though, Pemberton hesitates. His reservations are understandable; he has no financial resources to take on the responsibility of raising a teen-aged boy. But that bit of hesitancy proves fatal. Once again, one of James's honorable and intelligent characters succumbs to inescapable reality.
There has been much talk about the exact nature of the relationship between Pemberton and Morgan, with some commentators intimating a homosexual/paedophile attachment. Although there is no overt hint of a sexual relationship in the story, tutor and pupil do establish a bond of love and respect, which shines in contrast to the mundane, unimaginative world of the other Moreens: "Pemberton held him fast, hands on his shoulders — he had never loved him so."

Critical evaluation

Critic Robert Gale flatly called The Pupil "one of the finest short stories ever written," and few commentators have disagreed. The brilliant and wise prose, the unforgettable portraits of Morgan, Pemberton and the entire Moreen family, and the genuine, deeply affecting tragedy of the conclusion all make this one of the world's most impressive short narratives. Mortimer Adler rightly included the story in his Gateway to the Great Books series.
Besides the dispute about possible homosexual overtones in the relationship between Morgan and Pemberton, critics have also disagreed about how much responsibility the tutor bears for the boy's sudden collapse and death. There's no doubt that Morgan is disappointed when he sees Pemberton hesitate about taking him away from his worthless family. As mentioned before, that hesitation is understandable but Pemberton still falls short of heroic action in an admittedly difficult situation. And as Lionel Trilling observed about the story, sometimes a man is a hero or he is nothing at all.

The Pupil by Henry James September, 1997 [Etext #1032] ****The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Pupil by Henry James***** ******This file should be named pupil10.txt or****** Corrected EDITIONS of our etexts get a new NUMBER, pupil11.txt. VERSIONS based on separate sources get new LETTER, pupil10a.txt. Scanned and proofed by David Price, email We are now trying to release all our books one month in advan.....

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Rose O' the River by Kate Douglas Wiggin

Rose O' the River by Kate Douglas Wiggin September, 1997 [Etext #1033] The Project Gutenberg Etext of Rose O' the River by Kate Wiggin ******This file should be named rorvr10.txt or****** Corrected EDITIONS of our etexts get a new NUMBER, rorvr11.txt. VERSIONS based on separate sources get new LETTER, rorvh10a.txt. This etext was prepared by Shanti Day ( We are now trying to release all our books one month in adv.....

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