Readers and critics alike at times feel frustrated with Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, the careful, detailed record of the emergence of a young girl’s consciousness. James scholars are still puzzled over why the artist turned a serious novel over to such an apparently unsophisticated protagonist, and some have wondered whether a complex, realistic social satire can be communicated through a medium who does not understand much of what she sees. Critics are equally perplexed at the moral ambiguity around which the plot of the novel revolves, an uncertainty the novel’s disturbing conclusion does nothing to dispel. Such responses are probably inevitable, for What Maisie Knew seems to have escaped even the control of its author.
Written during a period of artistic transition for James, the novel is a strange mixture of the kind of masterful storytelling that characterizes such early works as Washington Square (1880) and the psychological complexity of later masterworks such as The Golden Bowl (1904). Perhaps the transitional aspect of the novel is best illustrated by the fact that James himself was not sure how long the manuscript should be. He originally conceived the work as a short story in which a young innocent is victimized by adults whose motives she cannot hope to fathom. The detailed notebooks James kept during the process of planning the story show that the idea grew steadily in James’s imagination. Maisie’s case became compelling for the writer, and he worked on the book with the kind of curiosity associated more with a reader than with an author. This sense of an outcome beyond anyone’s control finds its way into the finished version of the novel in the form of the narrator’s frequent admissions that, since what Maisie knows is so often more than she can put into thoughts or words, it is all one can do to follow the child’s development, let alone interpret or control it. When even an author cannot make complete sense of a novel’s events, a reader must expect some degree of uncertainty. Some aspects of the paradoxical nature of What Maisie Knew seem destined to remain unresolved.
From the outset, the novel is calculated to test the moral stance of its readers. James presents an abundance of low behavior but does not balance the text by providing high ground to which the heroine or the reader might escape. While the fact that the novel begins with a divorce was not enough to offend their sense of propriety, readers at the end of the nineteenth century were still unused to the practice. The hint of scandal surrounding Beale...
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