Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Numerous commentators, from Richard Blackmur to Tzvetan Todorov, Wolfgang Iser, and J. Hillis Miller, have noted that “The Figure in the Carpet” is a fiction about fiction, a story about the formal properties of storytelling and the interpretation of narrative. What remain unsettled, however, are both the meaning of this curious device (what the figure in the carpet signifies) and the connections to be drawn between it and the overall project of Henry James’s writing. Nor is it entirely decided among James’s readers and critics whether this tale itself is meant as a joke, a tragedy, or something else entirely. In short, “The Figure in the Carpet” has remained as elusive in its ultimate significance as the emblem in Vereker’s fiction that gives the story its title.

What does seem incontestable, however, is that James intended to suggest, perhaps no more honestly than Vereker, that fictions do instance a controlling idea or schema. There is ample evidence in James’s letters, notebooks, and nonfictional prose to suggest that exactly such a concept of the architectonic structure linking the works of an author one to another was very much the ideal toward which James strove in his own writing and which he thought characterized the most successful novelists of his and previous epochs. His famous criticism of certain British and Russian novels of the nineteenth century for lacking precisely this controlling intention, for being “loose and baggy monsters,” testifies to this. Nevertheless, James remained characteristically vague, scarcely more helpful than the fictional Vereker himself in giving any solid clues to what the overarching idea behind his fictional practice might be. Resourceful scholars have labored toward this goal but with scarcely more to show for their pains than the narrator in “The Figure in the Carpet” could boast. One might hazard the judgment that James no more intended that they should succeed than, as seems perfectly plausible, Vereker did in the narrator’s case. In a sense, in order to discover the secret of a writer’s entire oeuvre, one would have to be that writer oneself.