Henry James Essay - Critical Essays

Henry James American Literature Analysis

The distinctive focus of James’s early fiction is undoubtedly what the author himself dubbed the international theme. From Roderick Hudson (1876) and The American to Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Aspern Papers (1888), James wrote about Americans in Europe. One might invoke the “innocents abroad” of the Mark Twain title to characterize James’s overarching sense of how his countrymen, generally wealthy and in search of a cultural breadth and depth unavailable in the Gilded Age United States, came to grief when they encountered the more settled, socially entrenched European culture.

The classic examples are Daisy Miller and The American. In the former, the ingenue heroine dies when she foolishly ignores warnings not to venture out in the Roman evening when the danger of contracting fever is greatest. Her life and death allegorize the Jamesian sense that Americans are vulnerable when they go to Europe, that they are simply naïve in the ways of the world and thus easily fall to the wiles of the more cunning and worldly Europeans.

The American makes the same point less dramatically, depicting the tragic involvement of Christopher Newman, a disillusioned robber baron who has come to Paris to escape the ruthless competition of American business, with an old French family whose daughter he loves and wishes to marry. Newman thinks that his money (which the family desires) and native good sense will be proof against the family’s determined resistance to accepting him as a son-in-law. Too late he realizes that the rules of society are completely different in Europe, that discriminations and nuances that have matured over generations count for more than personal determination and a hefty bank balance.

James would never abandon the international theme entirely; it would, in fact, be central to his late masterpieces, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. From The Portrait of a Lady onward, however, the capacity of Americans to deal on equal terms with Europeans, to hold their own in the strategic game of manipulating social power, demonstrably improves. It may be that this raising of Americans’ stock, as it were, reflected James’s growing confidence in himself, both socially and artistically.

What seems more likely, however, is that James lived through a period when the balance of economic—hence social—forces had begun to shift dramatically in favor of the United States, particularly in relation to Britain and France, the two countries he knew best. Americans had been going abroad in growing numbers since before the Civil War; James’s own family was a prime example. With the definitive triumph of Northern industrial capital over the Southern plantocracy, the stage was set for a massive expansion of the American economy, with the building of railroads, heavy investment in coal and iron production, and the opening of the Western prairies for capitalist agriculture. By the 1880’s, and increasingly in the decades preceding World War I, American economic power was challenging that of Britain for global supremacy. This, one may surmise, is the relevant background to the demonstrably more powerful American characters who inhabit James’s mature fiction,

Much has been written about James’s prose style, especially about its growing complexity—even obscurity—in the last twenty years of his life. Close attention to the texts, however, reveals that while the periodicity of his sentences did grow as he matured, it is less their syntactic oddity—James’s sentences characteristically parse perfectly well—than their figurative richness that makes James’s prose bewildering.

The difficulty of James’s later writings is related to another feature that, while always observable in his fiction, assumes greater prominence in the texts of his final period. These narratives are often controlled by central symbols announced in the title, for example, the biblical image of the Holy Spirit in The Wings of the Dove, or the famous objet d’art in The Golden Bowl. The symbolic power of these central figures ramifies through the texts in subtle and occasionally explicit ways, but it is never obvious how one is to resolve their meaning.

James was notoriously resistant to stating his thematic purposes openly, as the prefaces to the New York edition and his notebooks testify, and this tendency to circumlocution, obliqueness, and downright reticence became more and more the norm in his writing from the late 1890’s onward. It has often been remarked that the archetypal Jamesian tale is “The Figure in the Carpet” (1896), a maddeningly elusive story about the fruitless search for the key or secret to a fictional writer’s corpus. Unlike Irish writer James Joyce, whose fondness for more or less rigorous allegorical systems led him to construct codes by which to decipher the large-scale structures underlying his narratives, James neither professed nor (apparently) ever seriously entertained the notion that his texts could be interpreted by reference to a fixed code or system of controlled meanings.

Indeed, it is often all but impossible to state directly what James’s texts are finally about. To say that The Ambassadors or The Wings of the Dove is about renunciation, or that “The Altar of the Dead” (1895) is about mourning, is not so much wrong as it is banal. At this level, one might say that thematic accounts of James inevitably fail. The subject matters of his texts are invariably less interesting than the intricate moves and countermoves plotted and enacted by the characters set down in the situations James has concocted for them.

Similarly, as James’s prose becomes more and more figuratively dense and textured, the weight of analysis must fall on the rhetorical structure of his sentences. Although reading the later James is probably an acquired taste, patience and close attention to the figural dimensions of his language will repay the effort.

Daisy Miller

First published: 1878

Type of work: Novella

On a trip abroad, a guileless American ingenue dies from a fever contracted when, against all advice, she goes out in the disease-ridden air of a Roman evening.

Daisy Miller was James’s first commercial success; it made him immediately famous as the chronicler of “the international theme” and remains, after The Turn of the Screw (1898), probably his most widely known work. A characteristic example of James’s early fiction, which is indebted to the allegorical tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the novella establishes a recurrent theme that would be reworked with increasing complexity as James’s career developed.

Frederick Winterbourne, an expatriate American resident for a number of years in Geneva, is on an excursion to Vevey, Switzerland, to visit an aunt. He encounters the Miller family, wealthy Americans touring Europe. While Mr. Miller has remained home in Schenectady to attend to business, Mrs. Miller, her son Randolph, and her daughter Daisy are sampling the pleasures of European tourist attractions.

Winterbourne is immediately attracted to the young, beautiful, and flirtatious Daisy, who innocently ignores the social conventions governing the conduct of young women in Europe. Daisy scandalizes Winterbourne’s aunt, Mrs. Costello, but charms and intrigues Winterbourne himself. Daisy extorts from him a promise to visit her in Rome in the coming winter, and the tale turns to their relations there.

In the intervening months, Daisy has taken up with a handsome Italian named Giovanelli, with whom she rendezvouses in the evenings—against the advice of both her mother and the resident American hostess, Mrs. Walker. They warn her about the insalubrious Roman air, and it is clear that, for Mrs. Walker at least, the impropriety of meeting handsome men, unaccompanied, is the more pressing danger. On one evening, Winterbourne accompanies Daisy, much to his consternation, for he is both attracted to and unable to comprehend her. He remarks:It was impossible to regard her as a perfectly well-conducted young lady; she was wanting in a certain indispensable delicacy. It would therefore simplify matters greatly to be able to treat her as the object of one of those sentiments which are called by romancers “lawless passion.” . . . But Daisy, on this occasion, continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.

As Winterbourne attempts vainly to warn Daisy that she is becoming the talk of the American colony, the young, headstrong woman continues to ignore him and all the proprieties. The climax of the story occurs when Daisy again ventures out into the Roman night—this time even her Italian admirer, Giovanelli, counsels against it—and encounters the furious Winterbourne in the Colosseum. With Giovanelli’s consent, he insists they return home, but the rescue comes too late. Daisy contracts the “Roman fever” (malaria, one presumes) and dies shortly thereafter.

Belatedly, Winterbourne realizes that he had done Daisy an injustice by believing the worst of her, and he assuages his guilt by returning to Geneva, where he is, depending on which reports one believes, either engaged in study or involved with “a very clever foreign lady.”

The allegory and the moral situation in Daisy Miller are simple enough. What remains ambiguous, as it does so often in James’s work, is the ending. What is one to make of the contradictory reports of Winterbourne’s life in Geneva? How is one to interpret his expressed intention to return to the United States in the wake of Daisy’s death, and then his not doing so? The interpretive dilemma at the end, with all its moral and psychological ramifications, appropriately forecasts the characteristic difficulties involving plot and character in virtually all James’s future fiction.

The Portrait of a Lady

First published: 1880-1881

Type of work: Novel

A young American heiress traveling in Europe is duped into marrying a cultured but passionless American expatriate; she discovers her mistake and is confronted by the dilemma of what to make of the marriage.

The Portrait of a Lady is James’s first unarguably major work. Technically his third novel (though the early Watch and Ward, published in 1871, is by general agreement unworthy of mention), it represents a quantum leap in sophistication and moral complexity over Roderick Hudson and The American.

Thematically continuous with Daisy Miller in that it treats the perils of an innocent American woman abroad, the novel probes the psychology of its heroine, Isabel Archer, to infinitely greater depths than does the earlier novella. The reader first encounters Isabel Archer at the English country house of the Touchetts. Isabel’s aunt, Lydia Touchett, has brought her from the United States after the death of Isabel’s father. Pursued by the feckless British aristocrat Lord Warburton and the crude American Caspar Goodwood, Isabel is also admired by her invalid cousin, Ralph Touchett, who gives her an enormous bequest from his father’s estate.

While visiting her aunt in Italy, Isabel meets Madame Merle, an elegant, cultured woman who maintains a respectable life by imposing on the hospitality of her wealthy acquaintances. Madame Merle introduces Isabel to Gilbert Osmond, an American expatriate...

(The entire section is 4775 words.)