Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The last of James’s completed novels, The Golden Bowl is arguably his crowning achievement, gathering together many of the major thematic concerns that dominated his entire career and weaving them into a rich tapestry of intrigue and psychological warfare. As nearly always in James, marriage and money are basic ingredients, but here these provide only the barest givens. The real force of the story derives from the subtle maneuverings, first of Charlotte Stamp and later of Maggie Verver (with some considerable assistance from her father, Adam), to secure the love of Maggie’s husband, Prince Amerigo.
On the eve of Maggie’s and Amerigo’s marriage, Charlotte Stamp, an old friend of Maggie, arrives in London to attend the ceremony. Unknown to Maggie, Charlotte was once the prince’s lover, and she enlists his help in choosing an appropriate wedding gift—the gilded crystal bowl of the title. After the wedding, Charlotte remains, at Maggie’s urging, to act as companion to Maggie’s father, the millionaire Adam, whom Maggie feels she has abandoned. Adam ultimately asks Charlotte to marry him. In the course of the two couples’ life together, Charlotte resurrects her affair with the prince. By chance, Maggie discovers that Charlotte and the prince had purchased the bowl together, surmising the truth about their past and the painful reality of their present relations.
Maggie is thus confronted with a dilemma: Either she must...
(The entire section is 577 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Maggie Verver is the daughter of a wealthy American widower who has devoted all of his life to his daughter. The Ververs live a lazy life. Their time is spent collecting items with which to decorate their own existence and to fill a museum that Mr. Verver is giving to his native city in the United States. They have few friends, and Maggie’s only confidant is Mrs. Assingham, the American-born wife of a retired British army officer. It is Mrs. Assingham who introduces the Ververs to Prince Amerigo, a handsome, quiet young Italian nobleman who strikes Maggie’s fancy. When she informs her father that she would like to marry the prince, Mr. Verver provides a handsome dowry so that the wedding might take place.
A few days before the wedding, a painful scene occurs in Mrs. Assingham’s home, where the prince and Charlotte Stant, deeply in love with each other, meet to say good-bye. They are both penniless, and marriage between them is out of the question. As a farewell lark, they spend their last afternoon together in searching for Charlotte’s wedding present for Maggie. In a tiny shop, they discover a golden bowl that Charlotte wishes to purchase as a remembrance for the prince from her. He refuses it because of a superstitious fear that a crack in a golden bowl might bring bad luck.
After the prince and Maggie are married, their life coincides with the life the Ververs have been living for years. Maggie and her father spend much of their time together. After a year and a half, a baby is born to the prince and Maggie, but the child makes no apparent difference in the relationships between Maggie and her father and between Maggie and her husband. Maggie decides that her father also needs a wife, and that Charlotte is the right sort of person; she will be thankful to marry a wealthy man and she will cause little trouble.
Mr. Verver, anxious to please his daughter in this as in everything else, marries Charlotte a short time later. Maggie and her father both take houses in London where they can be together a great deal of the time. The association of father and daughter leave the prince and Charlotte together much of the time. Maggie encourages them to go out and to represent her and her father at balls and dinners. Several years go by in this manner, but slowly the fact that there is something strange in the relationships dawns on Maggie. She eventually goes to Mrs. Assingham and pours out her suspicions. Mrs. Assingham, who knows the full circumstances, decides to keep silent.
Maggie resolves to say nothing of her suspicions to...
(The entire section is 1051 words.)
Book 1, Chapters 1-2 Summary
Amerigo is an Italian prince who has found in London the idea of Rome that Rome itself has lost. He is marrying Maggie Verver, the daughter of an American millionaire. Adam Verver travels all over the world, looking for items to add to the collection in a museum he is supplying. Maggie tells the Prince that, like pirates, the Ververs have treasure hidden in many different places; they carry only a few choice pieces around with them. The Prince himself is a museum piece, she says, intended to be taken back to Adam Verver’s native home called “American City.” The Prince asks Maggie if she suspects him at all of being a hypocrite, meaning that he is marrying her for her money. She dismisses the thought.
The prince’s family is coming from Italy to attend the wedding. The family is descended from a “wicked pope,” which gives it a dash of evil as well as romance. Maggie’s family consists only of her father. She does not intend to invite mere acquaintances to her wedding. The Prince reflects that Mrs. Fanny Assingham, whom he had met in Rome, is responsible for his marriage to Maggie. She had liked him at once and then proceeded to make a project of him, stating that she had someone in mind who would be perfect for him. He decides that he needs to visit her, and he wonders if she has been recompensed for bringing him and Maggie together.
The prince goes to thank Mrs. Assingham for her role in bringing about his marriage to Maggie Verver. Mrs. Assingham credits the prince more than he feels he is worth. He begs her to allow him to maintain their friendship, as he is still in need of her guidance as he enters the treacherous seas of marriage. The prince compares his moral sense to that of Mrs. Assingham: hers is like an elevator in one of Mr. Verver’s office buildings while his is more like a broken, ancient staircase missing several steps. Mrs. Assingham offers her husband, Bob, to the prince as an escort to meet the prince’s family when they arrive in London. She also mentions that Charlotte Stant, a close friend of Maggie’s from America, is also coming for the wedding.
The prince hides his surprise. Mrs. Assingham is blunt about the need for him to criticize Charlotte, but the prince feels troubled that Mrs. Assingham feels the need to be judgmental about Maggie’s friend. She promises, however, to look after her, saying that she does not feel troubled about her anymore.
Book 1, Chapters 3-4 Summary
Mrs. Assingham and the prince observe Charlotte Stant arriving. The prince inquires of Mrs. Assingham how long Charlotte is to be in London. He thinks Mrs. Assingham might think he does not like Charlotte, so he jokingly offers to take Charlotte off her hands. He and Charlotte greet each other in a tone of suspense. As they talk, the prince senses that Charlotte does not particularly like the United States, and Charlotte confesses this is true. The Prince says this is not encouraging for him because he is to go there soon with Maggie after their marriage.
The prince confides in Charlotte that he had suspected she would be married by now to some rich American; this reveals that they knew each other previously. Charlotte says she never found anyone to suit her. She declares that it is much easier for a woman to remain single now. She asks the prince if the wedding is to take place on Friday (which is an unlucky day). He tells her it is to be on Saturday at three o’clock. The prince tells her that he is to dine with Mr. Verver that evening and asks if she has any message for him. She says she will talk with Maggie soon. The prince offers to send a carriage for her, but she says she will take the omnibus, which costs only a penny. Charlotte asks the prince to help her find a wedding present for Maggie, something that cannot be bought in America. He agrees to accompany her and departs, feeling that he now knows where he stands.
That evening, Colonel Bob Assingham wonders why his wife is taking Charlotte’s arrival so hard. Charlotte came to London from Southampton, settled into a hotel for a few hours, and then relocated to a private home. Mrs. Assingham explains to the Colonel that Charlotte and the prince had previously had a romance but broke it off because neither had money enough to marry. Charlotte can no longer stay in America because she does not fit in. Mrs. Assingham believes that Charlotte has come to help Maggie understand the prince as she herself had come to know him. Mrs. Assingham does not believe Charlotte knows the Prince had any previous romantic attachment, nor has Charlotte told her, fearing that Maggie is not strong enough to take it. Colonel Assingham is confused as to his wife’s involvement in all this and wishes she would not meddle. Mrs. Assingham claims that, in a sense, these people are “hers” and would not resent her meddling. She thinks it would be best if she and her husband arranged a marriage for Charlotte.
Book 1, Chapters 5-6 Summary
As they had planned when meeting at Mrs. Assingham’s home, Charlotte Stant and the prince go shopping for Maggie’s wedding gift. Charlotte mentions the many times in Rome when the two of them had gone shopping; the prince was able to make bargains on many items Charlotte still has. The prince admits that he does not go shopping in London because he finds the experience there boring. They agree to go to shopping districts where the prince has not gone with Maggie, preferring out-of-the-way places where Maggie would not go and no one who would know either the prince or Charlotte would see them together. They have not told Maggie they were going shopping together. Charlotte confesses she has asked the Prince to accompany her on...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
Book 2, Chapters 1-3 Summary
Adam Verver is residing at his home, called Fawns, on a Sunday morning while all the others of the family are at church. He has retreated to his billiard room to escape Mrs. Rance, who has accompanied the Miss Lutches, friends of Maggie’s from the American Midwest. Mr. Verver is afraid Mrs. Rance is tracking him down with marriage on her mind, although she already has a husband somewhere in America.
Mr. Verver reflects on his first visit to Europe after the death of his wife, when Maggie was ten years old. He had come to Europe on his honeymoon and begun collecting antiques for his wife. After her death, Verver continued to collect but this time for the purposes of a museum. He wonders why he started out as a...
(The entire section is 399 words.)
Book 2, Chapters 4-5 Summary
Although Mr. Verver speaks of the possibility of other ladies with marriage on their mind, he sees it as a fate to be avoided rather than welcomed. He does not believe he will ever remarry, but Maggie thinks the time is right because she has left him alone by her marriage to the Prince, even though she lives next door to her father. In the past, women have avoided Mr. Verver after seeing how close a relationship he had with his daughter following his wife’s death. It would be unthinkable to “break up” this family by introducing another woman into the mix.
Mrs. Rance is unacceptable, both by her present married state and by her personality. Mrs. Assingham has taken an interested in matchmaking, but it is only for...
(The entire section is 415 words.)
Book 2, Chapters 6-7 Summary
Adam Verver takes Charlotte Stant to the seaside resort town of Brighton. There they meet Mr. Gutermann-Seuss, a gentleman who has longed to meet the famous antiques collector. Mr. Gutermann-Seuss is delighted with Charlotte, though he assumes she is Mrs. Verver because she and Mr. Verver are evidently a couple.
On one of their daily walks, Mr. Verver and Charlotte sit on a bench overlooking the town. Mr. Verver tells her that he hopes she could regard him with any satisfaction as a husband. He realizes that he is older than she is and that she has long regarded him as the father of her friend. Charlotte disagrees, saying it is she who seems old. Charlotte confesses that his proposal appeals to her mainly because she...
(The entire section is 422 words.)
Book 3, Chapters 1-2 Summary
Two years after her marriage to Adam Verver, Charlotte attends a society event that has drawn the best of London society. She encounters Mrs. Assingham, who questions her about her presence with the Prince instead of Mr. Verver. Charlotte explains that Mr. Verver did not feel like coming, but he sent Charlotte and Maggie and the Prince without him. Maggie soon felt that she ought to go back and be with her father, leaving her husband as companion for her step-mother.
Mrs. Assingham is shocked at this arrangement and asks Charlotte if it would not have been more appropriate for her, as his wife, to be with the ill Mr. Verver. Charlotte explains that Maggie has made great attempts to be with her father as much as...
(The entire section is 407 words.)
Book 3, Chapters 3-4 Summary
Colonel and Mrs. Assingham return home following the party, riding in a hired carriage. They discuss Charlotte and the Prince’s public appearance as a couple without their respective spouses. Mrs. Assingham feels that their strong defense of themselves supports her idea that there is something inappropriate occurring between the two. The Colonel points out that the Prince, whose wife is more devoted to her father than she is to her husband, is left out in the cold with nothing really to do. Mrs. Assingham admits that, as long as she has known him, the Prince has always acted admirably. The Colonel asks if she means that the Prince has earned the right to “kick up his heels.” His wife replies that it isn’t a question of...
(The entire section is 416 words.)
Book 3, Chapters 5-6 Summary
When Charlotte says she is acting as she used to do by doing whatever she liked, the Prince admits he does not have her courage. She replies that it is not so much her courage as her imagination and intelligence. He asks her where she has been all day. She replies that she had gone to the museum and the art gallery and would have gone to the zoo if it had not been so wet. Maggie has been with her father and her baby all day. Leaving the child with his grandfather, Maggie ran some errands for Mr. Verver, taking Charlotte’s carriage, which accounts for Charlotte’s walking in the rain and taking a cab.
The Prince asks her what she will say when asked where she has been all day. Charlotte says she will frankly tell them...
(The entire section is 394 words.)
Book 3, Chapters 7-8 Summary
Charlotte and the Prince attend a concert with the Assinghams, and the couples discuss an approaching event at Matcham over the Easter holidays. They all expect that neither Maggie nor Mr. Verver will be attending the occasion. Mrs. Assingham asks if Charlotte and the Prince will go if their spouses do not, and the young people insist that they will still be at Matcham. The Prince has become attached to, but not passionate about, the English social scene and generally makes a dominant presence at these occasions. He enjoys it, but he is never quite satisfied with the results. The Prince tells Mrs. Assingham that he understands that his presence or absence at Matcham makes a difference as to whether the Assinghams will feel...
(The entire section is 397 words.)
Book 3, Chapters 9-10 Summary
Lady Castledean, the hostess at Matcham, had invited Charlotte to stay for luncheon as an excuse and a cover for her desire to have a young man, Mr. Blint, stay while her husband was away. Charlotte was to serve merely a message to the other guests that Lady Castledean would not be alone with the young man.
The Prince, standing on the balcony and looking over the English countryside, thinks of going to Gloucester to visit the cathedrals and tombs. Charlotte arrives and reveals Lady Castledean’s intentions, that their hostess does not really want them to stay. Charlotte reminds the Prince of the golden bowl she had wanted to buy for Maggie for a wedding present and the Prince’s objection to it because it had an...
(The entire section is 429 words.)
Book 3, Chapter 11 Summary
Mrs. Assingham vacillates between believing Charlotte and the Prince are currently having an affair and thinking they are merely proceeding in that direction. However, she can tell by recent expressions on Maggie’s face that the Princess believes something is going on. She is beginning to doubt that friendship and family connections are strong enough against temptations. The Colonel feels that Maggie will place the blame on Charlotte rather than on her husband. Mrs. Assingham disagrees, saying Maggie will most likely only blame herself. Mrs. Assingham feels that herself is most to blame, though Maggie will not blame her. She reminds the Colonel of the night on the way home from the party at the Foreign Office, when they discussed...
(The entire section is 416 words.)
Book 4, Chapters 1-2 Summary
Maggie waits at her home (not her father’s, for once) for Amerigo’s return from his trip with Charlotte. She is nervous of her appearance, always having felt inferior to Charlotte in terms of personal style and fashion. She waits patiently, trying not to pace, but she is anxious for her husband to return, unconsciously fearing his time spent alone with Charlotte. She reflects that she has always loved her husband, especially from the time he proposed to her in Rome, but she has a more conscious need of him now. She has seldom been home; she has spent much of her time at her father’s. She felt that, rather than taking her attention away from her new husband, she was providing her husband with a new friend in her father. It...
(The entire section is 422 words.)
Book 4, Chapters 3-4 Summary
It had been discussed some time before that Maggie and Amerigo, along with the Ververs, might take a trip to Spain during the summer months. Maggie thinks this might play into her plan to draw her husband closer to herself and away from Charlotte. She suggests to Amerigo that, instead of all four of them going to Spain, he might take Mr. Verver without the women. She has been trying to spend less time with her father, seeing that her husband feels at loose ends when she is gone. Amerigo is unsure of this plan, and he feels that his father-in-law will not take to the suggestion. Maggie suggests that he should be the one to approach Mr. Verver with the prospect of the trip. Amerigo resists, so Maggie then proposes that they have...
(The entire section is 404 words.)
Book 4, Chapters 5-6 Summary
Maggie and her father return from their walk in Regent’s Park to find that Charlotte and Amerigo have already come home. The father and daughter discuss the plan for Amerigo and Mr. Verver to go to Spain. Mr. Verver says Amerigo will have to suggest the plan; he will not. They discuss the ability of the two couples to get along well together. Mr. Verver asks Maggie about the possibility of a return to their country home, Fawns, for the summer. Maggie states that she believes she is up to it, although she felt previously that this was too much proximity. Rather than going just the four of them, they talk about the possibility of asking Lady Castledean. Maggie confesses that she does not like Lady Castledean, but she enjoys...
(The entire section is 423 words.)
Book 4, Chapters 7-8 Summary
The Assinghams accept the invitation to pay an extended visit at Fawns beginning in mid-July. Fanny warns the Colonel that they will have to lie to Maggie, as she did when she told Maggie she did not believe there was anything going on between Charlotte and Amerigo. They will also have to lie to the others about believing in everyone’s best intentions. The Colonel is astonished that his wife sees lying to Maggie as being loyal to her. Fanny replies that she is loyal to Maggie in helping her with her father, which necessitates lying about Charlotte’s involvement with Amerigo. If Fanny gives the impression that she is sticking close to Maggie, Maggie in return will stick close to her. It is true that Maggie may inform her father...
(The entire section is 397 words.)
Book 4, Chapters 9-10 Summary
Maggie spends an hour at the Museum under Mr. Crichton’s protection. When she returns home, she decides to confront Fanny with her knowledge concerning Charlotte and her husband. She had wanted to get something for her father for his birthday. She visits the shop where Charlotte and Amerigo had seen the golden bowl. Maggie buys the bowl and brings it home. Later the shopkeeper tells her that Charlotte and Amerigo had been to his shop a few days before her wedding and noticed the bowl. Maggie places it conspicuously on the mantelpiece for Amerigo to discover.
Maggie points the bowl out to Fanny and tells her about it. She sees it as in indication that, although she had known that her husband and her step-mother had...
(The entire section is 439 words.)
Book 5, Chapters 1-3 Summary
After all the guests arrive at Fawns, Maggie experiences a sense of freedom, almost as if she were being released from a murky, enclosed space. Although no other exchange has occurred between her and her husband, she feels that he has kept his distance from Charlotte, as he has kept his distance from her. She explains this to Fanny Assingham, who is befuddled as to her friend’s assurance that Amerigo has not told Charlotte that Maggie knows about their affair.
When Maggie had explained to Amerigo about her purchase of the golden bowl, she told her husband that she felt the Jewish shopkeeper tried to return part of the purchase money because he liked her. When mentioning that he had known the two people (Charlotte and...
(The entire section is 439 words.)
Book 5, Chapters 4-5 Summary
Maggie feels that both she and Charlotte have been helped by the guests walking in on their seeming embrace. The others at Fawns assume that the two women had a quarrel that has caused a certain tension in the country home but that they have now patched up their differences and are friends again. Maggie is amazed at this misunderstanding, but she lets it go, seeing it as beneficial to her own plans for restoring her marriage. She views Charlotte as a caged animal that has broken free and is roaming at large. Now, Charlotte is playing the perfect hostess to the incoming guests and visitors. Her sense of duty—brought on by Amerigo’s keeping his distance from her even to the point of absenting himself from Fawns...
(The entire section is 454 words.)
Book 6, Chapters 1-3 Summary
Charlotte and Mr. Verver leave Fawns, leaving Maggie and Amerigo to live there alone. Maggie tells Amerigo that she is willing to go anywhere he wants, even abroad to visit some of the places he has loved so well. Instead, he insists on staying in England, but he wanders around, clearly bored. Fanny Assingham asks Maggie if she is worried that Charlotte will still be able to “get at” him if he is still there. Maggie replies that Charlotte will be able to get at him no matter where he is. Fanny asks what she plans to do with her evenings. Maggie says they will begin to have visitors again once it is known that they are alone.
Maggie feels that she and her father who are lost, since Charlotte and Amerigo got what they...
(The entire section is 423 words.)