The last of James’s completed novels, The Golden Bowl is arguably his crowning achievement, gathering together many of the major thematic concerns that dominated his entire career and weaving them into a rich tapestry of intrigue and psychological warfare. As nearly always in James, marriage and money are basic ingredients, but here these provide only the barest givens. The real force of the story derives from the subtle maneuverings, first of Charlotte Stamp and later of Maggie Verver (with some considerable assistance from her father, Adam), to secure the love of Maggie’s husband, Prince Amerigo.
On the eve of Maggie’s and Amerigo’s marriage, Charlotte Stamp, an old friend of Maggie, arrives in London to attend the ceremony. Unknown to Maggie, Charlotte was once the prince’s lover, and she enlists his help in choosing an appropriate wedding gift—the gilded crystal bowl of the title. After the wedding, Charlotte remains, at Maggie’s urging, to act as companion to Maggie’s father, the millionaire Adam, whom Maggie feels she has abandoned. Adam ultimately asks Charlotte to marry him. In the course of the two couples’ life together, Charlotte resurrects her affair with the prince. By chance, Maggie discovers that Charlotte and the prince had purchased the bowl together, surmising the truth about their past and the painful reality of their present relations.
Maggie is thus confronted with a dilemma: Either she must continue to tolerate her husband’s adultery or she must contrive to send Charlotte away, with the result that she will be deprived of her father. Opting for the latter, Maggie persuades her father to return with Charlotte to the United States and undertakes the task of constructing a secure relationship with her husband. While the fate of Maggie and the prince remains in the balance at the end, the real losers are surely Adam and Charlotte, the former because he is now forever separated from his daughter, the latter because she is exiled from the only amorous ties to which she can aspire—it being reasonably clear that Adam is impotent.
While the plot of The Golden Bowl is, in a way, simple and the premise is uncomplicated, the rich, textured performance of the novel transforms the material into a powerful portrait of the complex psychology of adultery and power. Maggie’s ostensible maturity in accepting the fact of her husband’s adultery is matched by the ruthless cunning she evinces in removing her rival from the field—this all without ever openly declaring her knowledge or her intentions.
It is by no means clear at the end that Maggie and the prince’s relations can be so readily resolved, although the prince’s dependence on Maggie’s fortune will surely constrain his behavior, as it motivated him to marry her in the first place. Beneath this plot of love and intrigue lies a fable about the growing hegemony of American wealth in the world market, for it is that which has brought Maggie and the prince together and sustains their marriage. If the impotent Adam Verver is one side of James’s image of the American haute bourgeoisie, the resourceful and single-minded Maggie is surely the other. Bereft of her innocence in much the same way as Isabel Archer, Maggie Verver contrives a more forceful plan of action that, if it does not absolutely ensure her supremacy over her husband, gives her a much more powerful hand to play.
Maggie Verver is the daughter of a wealthy American widower who has devoted all of his life to his daughter. The Ververs live a lazy life. Their time is spent collecting items with which to decorate their own existence and to fill a museum that Mr. Verver is giving to his native city in the United States. They have few friends, and Maggie’s only confidant is Mrs. Assingham, the American-born wife of a retired British army officer. It is...
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