"The Altar of the Dead"
is a short story
by Henry James
, first published in his collection Terminations
in 1895. A fable
of literally life
significance, the story explores how the protagonist tries to keep the remembrance of his dead friends, to save them from being forgotten entirely in the rush of everyday events. He meets a woman who shares his ideals, only to find that the past
places what seems to be an impassable barrier between them. Although James was not religious
in any conventional sense, the story shows a deep spirituality
in its treatment of mortality and the transcendent power of unselfish love
Aging George Stransom holds sacred the memory of the great love of his life, Mary Antrim, who died before they could be married. One day Stransom happens to read of the death of Acton Hague, a former friend who had done him a terrible harm. Stransom starts to dwell on the many friends and acquaintances he is now losing to death. He begins to light candles at a side altar in a Catholic church, one for each of his Dead except Hague.
Later he notices a woman who regularly appears at the church and sits before his altar, and they become friends. He eventually finds out that Hague had also wronged her but that she has forgiven him. Stransom can never absolve Hague, so this knowledge splits them apart. When Stransom, now dying, visits his altar one last time, it seems that Mary Antrim is asking him to forgive. He turns and sees his unnamed woman friend, who has become reconciled to him. There is a strong suggestion that Stransom is ready to forgive Hague—he feels how "the descent of Mary Antrim opened his spirit with a great compunctious throb for the descent of Acton Hague." But the story ends with his face showing "the whiteness of death."
As James got older himself, the deaths of his relatives and friends—especially his sister Alice James
and fellow-novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson
—began to turn his thoughts to how the "waves sweep dreadfully over the dead—they drop out and their names are unuttered." His Notebooks
show this idea crystallizing into the story of a man who would make an actual if private religion of remembrance of his dead.
But the story is far from a morbid, obsessive essay on death. The relationship between Stransom and his fellow-worshipper shows how forgiveness and love can overcome the wrongs of the past. The story is a parable for the living even more than an homage to the dead.
have generally rated this tale very high among James' works, with some calling it a "glorious fable," "magnificently written," and "one of his finest." James himself proudly placed the story at the head of volume 17 of the New York Edition
(1907–09) of his fiction, before even "The Beast in the Jungle
". The tale has appeared in a number of later anthologies.
So it is a little odd that in his Notebooks James seemed dissatisfied with the story after he had started work on it. Some have speculated that James had not yet imagined the back-story of Acton Hague and Stransom's unnamed woman friend when he expressed his impatience with the tale. James was unable to place the story in any magazine, something which many critics have found almost ridiculous for work of such quality.
directed the 1978 film, La Chambre verte
(The Green Room
), based on "The Altar of the Dead". The director himself played the protagonist, with Nathalie Baye
as the woman he befriends.
- Introduction to Henry James: Stories of the Supernatural by Leon Edel (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company 1970) ISBN 0-8008-3829-7
- The Notebooks of Henry James edited by F.O. Matthiessen and Kenneth Murdock (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1981) ISBN 0-226-51104-9
- The Tales of Henry James by Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1984) ISBN 0-8044-2957-X
- A Henry James Encyclopedia by Robert L. Gale (New York: Greenwood Press 1989) ISBN 0-313-25846-5