The Nosegay Effect: How to Smell Real


The snippet from Henry James’ “The Art of Fiction,” he represents a novel (and other examples of art by extension) as a flower saying that some of these works of art have the smell of reality. He then his alters his metaphor to a nosegay (Henry James). While nosegay can refer to a posies specifically or a small bouquet of flowers in general, James uses words like air, air-borne, atmosphere, suspended, faint, and particle to play up the smell related aspects of the word, nosegay and bring one’s attention to the smell related meanings of the word such as sweet smelling flowers, herbs, or perfume (Oxford English Dictionary). When James relates a finished piece of art to a nosegay, he is saying that realist art (while not actually real) has suspended within its unreality the faint air-borne particle that reminds the audience of the atmosphere of reality. Therefore, art can never truly represent the real.

In James’ “The Real Thing,” the Monarchs are unfit subjects for realist representation in sketches because they are already a convincing representation of reality. The artist initially assumes that the Monarchs are celebrities, and the porter’s wife announces them as “a gentleman—with a lady” (The Real Thing, Chapter 1). However, throughout the story he receives several hints that they are not the upper-class individuals that they seem to be. They had once made a living taking portraits for advertisements but had fallen on hard times. Now, they have no money. They live in a small apartment. They are forced to beg the artist for work. And once the artist realizes that he cannot do anything with them, he continues to employ them as charity (Chapters 1-3).

If they were actual aristocrats, they would not have been working for their wages in the first place. And if they had fallen on hard times, they would have been taken in by their relatives or friends who had room and money for them. The simple fact that they had no family or friends to give them somewhere to live shows that they only pretend to be aristocracy. But the Monarchs ability to act and dress refined is so good that that artist never questions their airs of aristocracy. Therefore, the reason that the artist is unable to convincingly draw them any other way than the way they look is because he is being influenced by Henry James’ nosegay effect. The Monarchs have created an atmosphere with suspended particles of the scent of aristocracy.