Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933
As he does in so much of his fiction, Henry James in The Awkward Age focuses his attention on the nature of social relationships in his adopted homeland, England. In this work, he does not, however, contrast the sophistication of European society with the more naïve, but at times morally superior, American scene. Instead, The Awkward Age is a scathing portrait of the hypocrisy and self-interest of British society, where young women, at that “awkward age” between girlhood and full-fledged adulthood, are especially vulnerable to the machinations of older women and men who wish to use them for their own purposes.
The unlikely hero of the story, Mr. Longdon, is not a member of the London society that James castigates. Well into middle age, Mr. Longdon returns to London from his country estate to reacquaint himself with the family of a woman he once loved deeply, whose memory he still cherishes though she is long dead. The society he finds is far different from the one he remembers from his youth. The contrast between past and present and the loss Mr. Longdon feels for the values he holds sacred are themes James plays upon throughout the work. Mr. Longdon, too, is at an “awkward age,” too old to pursue amorous relationships with women but young enough to be stirred by the beauty of a girl such as Nanda. His solution is to become a kind of surrogate father for her, a knight who will rescue her from the metaphorical dungeon in which she is trapped by her scheming mother and the men who want her for all the wrong reasons.
Three women dominate the novel: Mrs. Brookenham, her daughter Nanda, and the shadow of Lady Julia. Mr. Longdon’s reaction to each of them is a spur for what little action the novel contains. For the aging hero, the grace, poise, and moral rectitude he associates with Lady Julia have degenerated into Mrs. Brookenham’s scheming and corruption. In Nanda, Mr. Longdon sees the reincarnation of her grandmother, and he believes it is his mission in life to save the young woman from the life she is destined to lead if she remains in the social circle dominated by her mother and her father’s cousin, the duchess. These two femmes fatale, who are constantly working both as matchmakers and go-betweens for themselves and others in liaisons outside marriage, strike the man from an earlier generation as reprehensible and as a violation of the principles that governed relations between the sexes in an earlier era.
From Mr. Longdon’s efforts to wrest Nanda away from her mother, and from the efforts of Mrs. Brookenham and the duchess to guide various other characters into and out of relationships, a central theme of the novel emerges: power and control in social situations. For James, the question is not simply one of gender domination: The women in this novel seem to exercise as much power over men as men do over women. The unusual arrangement, which often blurs the line between traditional qualities associated with males and females, arises from all of the characters’ acquiescence in the social strictures that, by common assumption, should govern the lives of people in the higher social sets. Those standards involve a view of marriage as a financial and social arrangement rather than as a bond between two individuals deeply in love. Hence, both men and women in the novel are constantly concerned with improving their status in society by seeking the partner who will bring them money or position or both. Because her fortune seems assured, the duchess’s niece Aggie is a more attractive catch than Nanda. Even Mr. Longdon, whom James seems to intend as the moral arbiter in the work, places a monetary value on Nanda when he makes the proposal that if Vanderbank will marry Nanda, he will settle a small fortune on her to assure the couple’s financial independence. What emerges from this web of posturing and negotiating is a portrait of a society in which genuine concern for human feelings is subordinate to self-interest.
Such attitudes are only suggested, however. James’s fiction rarely states a moral position directly. However, even within the James canon, The Awkward Age is a particularly difficult novel. Eschewing conventional methods of storytelling in fiction, James instead imposes dramatic principles on his story. Almost the entire novel is cast in the form of dialogue and conversation, and readers are left to discern characters’ motives and moral qualities from the remarks they make about themselves and others. Often information is conflicting, even contradictory. It is never entirely clear whether such figures as Mrs. Brookenham and Vanderbank are simple seekers after pleasure or more complex personalities who recognize that living in the world of high society places extraordinary demands on individuals. It is never certain whether Mitchy is so devoted to Nanda that his marriage to Aggie is an act of self-sacrifice, or whether he is simply another of the dissolute men who populate Mrs. Brookenham’s salon, willing to do whatever he is told rather than cause a scene. It is not even clear how Mr. Longdon and Nanda feel about each other when she agrees to leave her mother’s home to live with him in the country. James has allowed readers to observe the characters and to listen to them for a while. How to judge the characters, however, remains a constant enigma, akin to the situation everyone faces daily in trying to judge those who are only known through what they say and do.
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