Discussion: “What to Do with Henry”, Tania James

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the Tania James story “What to Do with Henry”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • How is the third person perspective operating in this story? What does it allow James to do? What effect does it have on the reader?
  • In several places, this story goes back and repeats scenes from the perspective  of a different character (for instance, we see Henry’s adoption from Saffa’s point of view and then, later, from Pearl’s). What does this repetition yield?
  • At the end of the story, we move from scene, with Neneh and Henry at the cage, to Neneh’s recollection of the previous night’s dream.  What do you make of the construction of this ending?

14 thoughts on “Discussion: “What to Do with Henry”, Tania James

  1. “What to dD with Henry” is a story that follows multiple character. With respect to Pearl, it is the story of how she transformed her unfortunate circumstances into an opportunity to grow spiritually and share love. For Neneh, it was the story of finding her new home and a failed reunion with her old childhood friend. For Henry, it was a story about the very harsh reality of being defined not by your own characteristics, but by others preconceived notions of you.

    My favorite aspect of this story was the fact that it was a story centered around three different characters simultaneously. This of course is only possible because of the 3rd person narration. The story would have been much more stagnant and it would of lost a lot of it’s fluidity if it was told from the 1st person perspective of each character and divided by transitions. By writing this story in the 3rd person, we could get close to multiple characters and follow each of their individual experiences.

    Revisiting scenes also helped in making the story multi-centered. This story was much less about following the events that took place, and more about the underlying themes that come through when we are given a window into the mind of each character. Revisiting scenes form different perspective makes the story not about the scenes, but the characters reaction to the scene.


  2. By Samuel Antezana

    “What to Do with Henry” is the heartbreaking story of Pearl, her adoptive child, Neneh, that is the product of Pearl’s husband’s affair, and the chimpanzee Henry, who they bought at a market in Africa before returning to the United States.

    I found this story to be extremely heart-wrenching because of the simplistic writing and diction that Tania James used. James’ usage of third person works to great lengths in bringing events described in the story come to life in front of the reader. The descriptions of Henry’s actions and his behavior when he lived with Neneh and Pearl were very vivid to me and I myself could understand why Neneh considered Henry a brother, and not just some pet. I also thought the third person worked wonderfully because the story began by following Saffa, and at first I thought that he would be the protagonist of the story, but the ease at which the third person narrative went along with made it cool to see who the real protagonists where. In addition it worked to hold the reader’s focus on one character, such as Pearl, who ends up dying later because of a kidney transplant that began to slowly kill her. After that the narrative latches onto Neneh.

    I also thought that the repetition of events through different character’s perspectives was effective in highlighting important moments throughout the story and also how so much has changed in Neneh’s life since she was brought to the U.S., how she feels like her homeland is a strange place, or nothing more than one of those countless “national geographic” pictures.

    However, the ending of the story was a bit puzzling to me. I think I did not understand it very well, but I know her dream is brought up in her mind because the last moment she has with Henry signifies the death of her relationship with him because the zoo keepers will most likely not let her visit again. Again, my interpretation may be wrong, but this is how I thought the dream of her dying related to that moment.


  3. The third person perspective enables the story and/or narrator to be able to see more than just what one character can see. The reader can obtain information and details about characters, the setting, or the plot that they would not be able to get if the story was told from just one characters perspective. This also works with the repeating scene of Henry’s adoption from Neneh and Pearl’s points of view. Through the different eyes of these two characters, we can learn about different aspects of the same scene that the reader could not have gotten if they had read one or the other. This is a attribute of the story that I like.

    The ending of the story is another thing that I thought was great. Using the dream of Neneh dying to protect Henry and connecting it with her never being able to see him again after leaving him at the zoo was genius. Through this we can see the real pain and sorrow Neneh feels about the situation; feeling as if she is losing a part or herself or her life by losing her connection with Henry. The way it ends is also very well thought out. By using the end of their relationship as the literal end of the story is quite impressive.


  4. In the story, “What To Do With Henry,” Tania James uses the third person perspective to tell the story of Henry and all those around him. I think that the use of this perspective allowed James to let us into the minds of so many different characters and added a depth we wouldn’t have otherwise gotten had she just stayed true to one of the characters. An interesting technique James used with third person perspective was the frequency she jumped from character to character. In a matter of one or two lines we could hear from multiple characters on the same occurrence. Doing this showed the reader what was going on from all different perspectives and I thought this technique was unique because I usually expect a paragraph break before I jump into another characters perspective.
    I also enjoyed James’ use of third person because we got a lot of personal back story on each character which we wouldn’t normally get with sticking to one character because there’d be no way to tell those extended details that way. I felt that the rapid switching was a little disorienting at times but I also liked it because it makes you more aware of how everyone is feeling at a given moment and reminds us how complex peoples’ lives are everyday.
    James’ use of repetition also adds depth because we get to hear how different characters experienced the same situation. It adds to the idea that Henry touched every characters’ lives in a different way and each character fond a different meaning or purpose in being around Henry. The repetition doesn’t feel daunting because it honestly feels completely new, it’s coming from a different side and feels like a whole new experience for the reader.


  5. In “What to do with Henry”, Tania James uses third person to describe the events that unfold in the lives of Neneh, Pearle, Henry and James. They are all parts of a larger story in which Pearle’s husband cheats on her with someone in Sierra Leone, who then has a child who is Neneh. Henry is the chimp that Pearle and Neneh pick up on their way out of Sierra Leone, and James is a zookeeper in the zoo that Pearle is eventually forced to place Henry in. The third person works to tell us all of these details that encompass lives and long spans of time, through the perspectives of many of these different people. In this way it works well because it allows us to get close to the thoughts of a particular protagonist in any part of the story. The switching of perspectives allows the reader to feel a type of empathy for the people represented in the book, because we can see their thoughts and perceived intentions, letting us know why they are doing what they are doing. We learn through this, and see that what one character surmises about the other may not be true, and in this way enhances the idea of rejecting pre-conceived notions. The third person also works because it is omniscient, and tells everything in an almost story-teller way, in which the events unfold through time, and a single event can be repeated to show the effects it has on different people. This was the strong point of the story to me because it highlighted the differences in perception and it felt like a nuanced commentary on what seemed to me to be a white savior mentality. I however, did not really get that feeling at the end of compassion because it seemed all to familiar to me, and the setup seemed long and ineffective. I dont know why this story did not affect me as much as I thought it would, and especially the ending left me confused as to the point of the story. The indications made it seem to me that it was commentary and metaphor, but it seemed deliberately vague and if that was the intention then I feel that I should have felt something else from the piece.


  6. What to Do with Henry is a short story in which the author, Tania James, incorporates the use of a third-person narrator because it allows her to depict her story’s unique narrative in an incredibly efficient way, without sacrificing any quality of writing or making the story any less engaging. By using this third-person narration, James is able to switch perspectives at any point she deems appropriate, often times revisiting past scenes through the eyes of another character. This is a great story telling technique because it gives the reader an opportunity to experience the transpiring events to their fullest extent by allowing them to view the story from every possible angle and perspective. One could argue that this same effect could be achieved through a first-person narrator, by simply changing to a different character’s first-person point of view, but I disagree. Due to the fact that when writing with a first-person narrator, the primary pronoun used during said narration would be “I,” constantly switching perspectives could easily be interpreted as being uncomfortable, awkward, or even jarring. When a change of perspective occurs, it may not be easy to figure out that this had even happened, or in some cases who the perspective had even switched to. Thanks to James’ use of a third-person narrator, we are constantly informed whenever the story is speaking/following someone else because the narrator simply refers to the new character by their name, which would not happen in a first person narrator, unless the character in question has a tendency to refer to themselves in the third person, which frankly would just be weird. Simply put, utilizing this third-person perspective allows Tania James to tell the unique style of narrative that her story carries in a way that no other narration style could achieve so successfully.


  7. The third person perspective in “What to Do with Henry” was something that really stuck out to me in my reading of this story. The narrator is omniscient, and as such, can get close to several different characters throughout the story. This allows the reader to hear events from different characters’ points of view. I really enjoyed this aspect of the story and I found it especially interesting that we were even able to see Henry’s perspective at some points. It made him more of a legitimate character and not just the family pet. This made his captivity even more heart-wrenching for me, because the story had set him up to be very human and an equal member of the family. I don’t think this could have been achieved without the third-person point of view, because Henry’s perspective coupled with Pearl’s and Neneh’s is what really shows the mutual love that they all have for each other.


  8. The fact that the story was presented in multiple points of views is what really intrigued me. The fact that these events were revisited in the perspective of others really gave the story a full feeling. In a certain way, this story reminds me of Cory’s story, especially with the inclusion of Henry’s perspective. The third person perspective is what makes this possible, because if it was in first person, the transition between each person/character would be more confusing, and wouldn’t have had the same clean effect.


  9. The third person allows the story to monkey around with different perspectives in a way that was very fluid. The story would transition whenever the different characters interacted so that the changes in perspective didn’t feel jarring. The repetition of certain scenes gives the story a more three dimensional feel because we get to see how different characters intersect in scene and the disparity in their situations (like with Saffa and Pearl).


  10. This story utilizes third person in a very close way. In the beginning especially, this allows the reader to think with Saffa. We know what Saffa knows and we assume what Saffa assumes. Although we are close to Saffa in the beginning, James’s use of third person allows us to switch to the perspective of two other characters as well. I think the transitions between characters are smooth and that is because of the use of third person.

    The repetition of phrases and sentences yields consistency for me. It bridges the gaps between characters and allows me to stay focused and not get confused. I did not lose my momentum while switching form Saffa’s perspective to Pearl’s and Neneh’s, and that can be attributed to James’s use of close third person and consistency with language. The repetition was used to highlight important parts of the story that James wanted the reader to remember and I think that she was successful in using this tool.


  11. Just so the entire experience is humanized, the author writes the piece from different perspectives in third person. By the time we get to Henry being in the zoo on his own i feel as though I know him personally. I think the different perspectives definitely make it easier to relate to Henry.

    In the end, the story seems to be told from a vantage point and in a way where I feel connected to key characters because I read their thoughts at certain points.


  12. This story would only work in third person because it focuses on three characters. By zooming out and looking things/people objectively, as third person often does, we are able to connect with all three people (well, one chimpanzee technically, but hey, everybody’s equal in this day and age, right?) and get (seemingly) unbiased information, both background and though-wise, that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. It also lends itself to jumping around – the story tends to focus on one character and then jump to another. This would be hard to do in first person, unless the narrator switches. Overall I’d say the effect of third person in this story is to give it scope. First person would yield a much narrower story (i.e. it would have stopped after pearl died if it was following her, etc.).


  13. The story “What to Do with Henry” was an enjoyable read for me that flowed smoothly, with a pacing that made the pages go by easily and engaged me into the characters. In a few instances, a scene is repeated from a different characters point of view. I liked this technique (and it is one that I have used myself) as it places an emphasis on how characters view the same set of events in entirely different matters, which speaks volume not only about who each character is as a person but what their past/background is that causes them to view things in such contrasting ways. The opening scene from Saffa’s point of view is of him selling Henry, as an orphaned baby chimp, to Pearl, all the while thinking that she was a posh westerner who was bored with her life and wanted the chimp as a trivial pet, without really understanding anything about what she was getting into by adopting him. Later, the same scene is shown retroactively through Pearl’s point of view, and there is a noticeable contrast in the way the same events are narrated. Pearl didn’t just adopt Henry as a trivial whim – she seemed to know what she was doing and getting into.


  14. The third person format of the story allows for story to constantly flow around Henry. One thing I liked about the story is that it always moved around Henry even if he wasn’t in the focus. The way that characters were always reacting to him and making decisions based on him as well as connecting to him was really nice. I liked the way that the way that events were shown through different characters eyes. It added a lot more depth to the characters and their world. It added more complexity to the story as well as the events themselves. The characters were also done well. It was easy to sympathize with them all and their backstories are presented well.


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