Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Figure in the Carpet” is somewhat unusual among James’s major tales for being written in the first person, rather than in the third-person, partially omniscient mode characteristic of his fiction. This may account in part for the relative directness of the style itself, which, if one compares it to the contemporaneous “The Altar of the Dead” or even to the earlier “The Aspern Papers,” seems simple and unproblematic. None of the infamous convolutions associated with the famous “late style” is evident here. Such a stylistic practice does not, however, prevent the story from being an excellent example of that ambiguity and elusiveness that is often remarked in James’s most important fiction.

Indeed, the seeming straightforwardness of the tale is a kind of falsely comforting, or purposefully deceptive, device for luring the unsuspecting reader into the labyrinthine difficulties and possibilities presented by the plot and characters. In a world where most of the characters speak comparatively plainly and directly (unlike the later novels and tales, “The Figure in the Carpet” is not clotted with a dense structure of conflicting metaphors and other figures of speech), one is likely to believe that they themselves are, in the end, fairly transparent in motive and straightforward in action. Nothing could be further from the truth. One is never certain whether Vereker is telling the truth when he confides a hint about his secret to the narrator, or whether Corvick did indeed make the discovery he has claimed, or most of all whether he confided his knowledge to his bride. Nor can one be certain of the motive for Gwendolen’s silence both in the face of the narrator’s importunings and with regard to her second husband—or was she silent with him at all? In a tale so fraught with mysteries and potentially deceptive behavior, one would be foolish to take at face value the narrator’s judgment concerning Drayton Deane’s ultimate ignorance. It is just such naïveté, which the narrative manifestly defeats in its theme and in its action, that the plainness of James’s style invites. It would probably be incorrect to label this disjunction between style and theme a contradiction; it would not be so wrong to discern in it yet another puzzle in this most puzzling of James’s major short stories.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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