Henry James American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4775

The distinctive focus of James’s early fiction is undoubtedly what the author himself dubbed the international theme. From Roderick Hudson (1876) and The American to Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Aspern Papers (1888), James wrote about Americans in Europe. One might invoke the “innocents...

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The distinctive focus of James’s early fiction is undoubtedly what the author himself dubbed the international theme. From Roderick Hudson (1876) and The American to Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Aspern Papers (1888), James wrote about Americans in Europe. One might invoke the “innocents abroad” of the Mark Twain title to characterize James’s overarching sense of how his countrymen, generally wealthy and in search of a cultural breadth and depth unavailable in the Gilded Age United States, came to grief when they encountered the more settled, socially entrenched European culture.

The classic examples are Daisy Miller and The American. In the former, the ingenue heroine dies when she foolishly ignores warnings not to venture out in the Roman evening when the danger of contracting fever is greatest. Her life and death allegorize the Jamesian sense that Americans are vulnerable when they go to Europe, that they are simply naïve in the ways of the world and thus easily fall to the wiles of the more cunning and worldly Europeans.

The American makes the same point less dramatically, depicting the tragic involvement of Christopher Newman, a disillusioned robber baron who has come to Paris to escape the ruthless competition of American business, with an old French family whose daughter he loves and wishes to marry. Newman thinks that his money (which the family desires) and native good sense will be proof against the family’s determined resistance to accepting him as a son-in-law. Too late he realizes that the rules of society are completely different in Europe, that discriminations and nuances that have matured over generations count for more than personal determination and a hefty bank balance.

James would never abandon the international theme entirely; it would, in fact, be central to his late masterpieces, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. From The Portrait of a Lady onward, however, the capacity of Americans to deal on equal terms with Europeans, to hold their own in the strategic game of manipulating social power, demonstrably improves. It may be that this raising of Americans’ stock, as it were, reflected James’s growing confidence in himself, both socially and artistically.

What seems more likely, however, is that James lived through a period when the balance of economic—hence social—forces had begun to shift dramatically in favor of the United States, particularly in relation to Britain and France, the two countries he knew best. Americans had been going abroad in growing numbers since before the Civil War; James’s own family was a prime example. With the definitive triumph of Northern industrial capital over the Southern plantocracy, the stage was set for a massive expansion of the American economy, with the building of railroads, heavy investment in coal and iron production, and the opening of the Western prairies for capitalist agriculture. By the 1880’s, and increasingly in the decades preceding World War I, American economic power was challenging that of Britain for global supremacy. This, one may surmise, is the relevant background to the demonstrably more powerful American characters who inhabit James’s mature fiction,

Much has been written about James’s prose style, especially about its growing complexity—even obscurity—in the last twenty years of his life. Close attention to the texts, however, reveals that while the periodicity of his sentences did grow as he matured, it is less their syntactic oddity—James’s sentences characteristically parse perfectly well—than their figurative richness that makes James’s prose bewildering.

The difficulty of James’s later writings is related to another feature that, while always observable in his fiction, assumes greater prominence in the texts of his final period. These narratives are often controlled by central symbols announced in the title, for example, the biblical image of the Holy Spirit in The Wings of the Dove, or the famous objet d’art in The Golden Bowl. The symbolic power of these central figures ramifies through the texts in subtle and occasionally explicit ways, but it is never obvious how one is to resolve their meaning.

James was notoriously resistant to stating his thematic purposes openly, as the prefaces to the New York edition and his notebooks testify, and this tendency to circumlocution, obliqueness, and downright reticence became more and more the norm in his writing from the late 1890’s onward. It has often been remarked that the archetypal Jamesian tale is “The Figure in the Carpet” (1896), a maddeningly elusive story about the fruitless search for the key or secret to a fictional writer’s corpus. Unlike Irish writer James Joyce, whose fondness for more or less rigorous allegorical systems led him to construct codes by which to decipher the large-scale structures underlying his narratives, James neither professed nor (apparently) ever seriously entertained the notion that his texts could be interpreted by reference to a fixed code or system of controlled meanings.

Indeed, it is often all but impossible to state directly what James’s texts are finally about. To say that The Ambassadors or The Wings of the Dove is about renunciation, or that “The Altar of the Dead” (1895) is about mourning, is not so much wrong as it is banal. At this level, one might say that thematic accounts of James inevitably fail. The subject matters of his texts are invariably less interesting than the intricate moves and countermoves plotted and enacted by the characters set down in the situations James has concocted for them.

Similarly, as James’s prose becomes more and more figuratively dense and textured, the weight of analysis must fall on the rhetorical structure of his sentences. Although reading the later James is probably an acquired taste, patience and close attention to the figural dimensions of his language will repay the effort.

Daisy Miller

First published: 1878

Type of work: Novella

On a trip abroad, a guileless American ingenue dies from a fever contracted when, against all advice, she goes out in the disease-ridden air of a Roman evening.

Daisy Miller was James’s first commercial success; it made him immediately famous as the chronicler of “the international theme” and remains, after The Turn of the Screw (1898), probably his most widely known work. A characteristic example of James’s early fiction, which is indebted to the allegorical tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the novella establishes a recurrent theme that would be reworked with increasing complexity as James’s career developed.

Frederick Winterbourne, an expatriate American resident for a number of years in Geneva, is on an excursion to Vevey, Switzerland, to visit an aunt. He encounters the Miller family, wealthy Americans touring Europe. While Mr. Miller has remained home in Schenectady to attend to business, Mrs. Miller, her son Randolph, and her daughter Daisy are sampling the pleasures of European tourist attractions.

Winterbourne is immediately attracted to the young, beautiful, and flirtatious Daisy, who innocently ignores the social conventions governing the conduct of young women in Europe. Daisy scandalizes Winterbourne’s aunt, Mrs. Costello, but charms and intrigues Winterbourne himself. Daisy extorts from him a promise to visit her in Rome in the coming winter, and the tale turns to their relations there.

In the intervening months, Daisy has taken up with a handsome Italian named Giovanelli, with whom she rendezvouses in the evenings—against the advice of both her mother and the resident American hostess, Mrs. Walker. They warn her about the insalubrious Roman air, and it is clear that, for Mrs. Walker at least, the impropriety of meeting handsome men, unaccompanied, is the more pressing danger. On one evening, Winterbourne accompanies Daisy, much to his consternation, for he is both attracted to and unable to comprehend her. He remarks:It was impossible to regard her as a perfectly well-conducted young lady; she was wanting in a certain indispensable delicacy. It would therefore simplify matters greatly to be able to treat her as the object of one of those sentiments which are called by romancers “lawless passion.” . . . But Daisy, on this occasion, continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.

As Winterbourne attempts vainly to warn Daisy that she is becoming the talk of the American colony, the young, headstrong woman continues to ignore him and all the proprieties. The climax of the story occurs when Daisy again ventures out into the Roman night—this time even her Italian admirer, Giovanelli, counsels against it—and encounters the furious Winterbourne in the Colosseum. With Giovanelli’s consent, he insists they return home, but the rescue comes too late. Daisy contracts the “Roman fever” (malaria, one presumes) and dies shortly thereafter.

Belatedly, Winterbourne realizes that he had done Daisy an injustice by believing the worst of her, and he assuages his guilt by returning to Geneva, where he is, depending on which reports one believes, either engaged in study or involved with “a very clever foreign lady.”

The allegory and the moral situation in Daisy Miller are simple enough. What remains ambiguous, as it does so often in James’s work, is the ending. What is one to make of the contradictory reports of Winterbourne’s life in Geneva? How is one to interpret his expressed intention to return to the United States in the wake of Daisy’s death, and then his not doing so? The interpretive dilemma at the end, with all its moral and psychological ramifications, appropriately forecasts the characteristic difficulties involving plot and character in virtually all James’s future fiction.

The Portrait of a Lady

First published: 1880-1881

Type of work: Novel

A young American heiress traveling in Europe is duped into marrying a cultured but passionless American expatriate; she discovers her mistake and is confronted by the dilemma of what to make of the marriage.

The Portrait of a Lady is James’s first unarguably major work. Technically his third novel (though the early Watch and Ward, published in 1871, is by general agreement unworthy of mention), it represents a quantum leap in sophistication and moral complexity over Roderick Hudson and The American.

Thematically continuous with Daisy Miller in that it treats the perils of an innocent American woman abroad, the novel probes the psychology of its heroine, Isabel Archer, to infinitely greater depths than does the earlier novella. The reader first encounters Isabel Archer at the English country house of the Touchetts. Isabel’s aunt, Lydia Touchett, has brought her from the United States after the death of Isabel’s father. Pursued by the feckless British aristocrat Lord Warburton and the crude American Caspar Goodwood, Isabel is also admired by her invalid cousin, Ralph Touchett, who gives her an enormous bequest from his father’s estate.

While visiting her aunt in Italy, Isabel meets Madame Merle, an elegant, cultured woman who maintains a respectable life by imposing on the hospitality of her wealthy acquaintances. Madame Merle introduces Isabel to Gilbert Osmond, an American expatriate living in quiet retirement in a Roman villa with his daughter Pansy. Disarmed by Osmond’s cultivation and taken with Pansy, Isabel accepts Osmond’s offer of marriage, only to discover that he has effectively imprisoned her and, to her immense dismay, that he was formerly Madame Merle’s lover and Pansy is their illegitimate offspring. Isabel realizes that any attempt to sunder their bond will lead to Pansy’s suffering; as she genuinely cares for Pansy, she is caught on the horns of a classic Jamesian moral dilemma.

Summoned to England to see her dying cousin Ralph, Isabel encounters both Lord Warburton, who offers to marry her (she declines), and the egregious Caspar Goodwood, who in a rare scene of explicit passion in James, forcefully embraces Isabel:His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was free. She never looked about her; she only darted from the spot . . . She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.

As in much of James’s writing, while the meaning of this ending (the finale actually comes some lines later, when the reader learns that Isabel has returned to Rome) seems clear enough, what will become of Isabel when she rejoins Osmond is far from certain. In a gesture that will become the very signature of James’s mature fiction, she renounces her freedom and assumes the moral burden of defending Pansy from Osmond’s revenge. Yet whether she will remain a submissive and suffering spouse, as she had been prior to discovery of Osmond’s and Madame Merle’s machinations, is more difficult to determine. If James’s later heroines are any guide here, it may be surmised that Isabel will now be more than a match for her unscrupulous and soulless husband.

Along with The American, The Portrait of a Lady was one of the texts James revised most heavily for publication in the New York edition of his novels and tales. In general, these revisions did not alter the basic elements of the plot, but they tended, in line with James’s later conception of his work, to render more ambiguous its ultimate outcome.

What Maisie Knew

First published: 1897

Type of work: Novel

Shuttled off by her divorced parents to various caretakers and minders, young Maisie Farange discovers truths about human selfishness while contriving to secure a stable home for herself.

When Mr. and Mrs. Beale Farange are divorced, they receive joint custody of their young daughter Maisie. At first, both jealously guard their privileges, using Maisie as a weapon to wreak revenge on each other. Then, as they each become involved with new lovers, Maisie is increasingly forgotten, left to fend for herself with little more guidance and affection that what is to be had from her ridiculous governess, Mrs. Wix.

As it happens, Ida Farange’s new husband, Sir Claude, has some scruples and is genuinely fond of Maisie. It is he who takes over her care—indeed, her entertainment—for the most part, while her selfish and heedless parents all but abandon her. Sir Claude and Ida eventually go their separate ways, however, and he takes up with Beale’s new wife, Miss Overmore. This puts the highly scrupulous Mrs. Wix in a compromising position, which she applies to the hapless Maisie, who would, it seems, be quite content to go on living with Sir Claude and his new mistress.

At this point, the extent of Maisie’s extraordinarily canny grasp of her situation and of the intricate amorous games being played all around her becomes clear. She quite brazenly bargains with various adults to secure her own care, preferably with Sir Claude. He takes her to France with Mrs. Wix, only to be pursued there by Ida, or Mrs. Beale, as she is most frequently called. In a climactic confrontation, Sir Claude dispatches Maisie and Mrs. Wix back to England, promising never to abandon Maisie, although he seems to have returned to Ida, who, presumably, has no desire to have her gay life interrupted by the duties of caring for a young child.

The novel takes a pathetic subject and treats it with extraordinary tact and splendid comedy. James claimed in the preface to this text in the New York edition that the entire interest of the tale lay in its being told as if from the point of view—though not in the language—of the child. This consciously imposed constraint makes for occasionally difficult going, as while Maisie’s consciousness demonstrably matures in the course of the novel, it is not always immediately clear what she beholds, because her knowledge of adult relations is for quite some time rather inexact. Still, What Maisie Knew remains among James’s minor masterpieces, perhaps the first of the mature texts that someone new to the Jamesian manner should attempt.

The Turn of the Screw

First published: 1898

Type of work: Novella

In an English country house, a high-strung governess discovers that her charges are in the power of ghosts who have corrupted them.

Ghost stories would appear at first not to be James’s natural genre, but like all of his mature fiction, The Turn of the Screw exhibits important complications. The tale is framed by a nameless narrator relating how one evening a man identified only as Douglas read a manuscript—which is the story one is about to read—to an audience eager to hear a ghost story. From the outset, then, the story is placed at several removes from the reader. Questions about Douglas, the narrator, and the authorship of the manuscript all remain maddeningly unresolved. It is also futile to attempt to resolve the question of whether the ghosts in the story are real.

The tale is simple enough in outline. The nameless governess has been hired by her similarly nameless employer to look after his orphaned nephew and niece, Miles and Flora. Sent down to Bly, the employer’s country house, for this purpose, the governess encounters two ghosts: that of Peter Quint, her employer’s dead former valet, and Miss Jessel, her predecessor as the children’s governess. From the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, the governess learns that Quint and Miss Jessel were intimate and that they may have corrupted the children.

In a series of bizarre incidents, the governess becomes convinced that the ghosts have indeed possessed the children, and she resolves to protect her charges from further harm by keeping them there at Bly, under her watchful eye. (Miles was to have returned to school, having been expelled earlier for possibly immoral conduct.) Her vigilance fails, however, as Flora is discovered wandering near the lake one night where Mrs. Grose sees the ghost of Miss Jessel. Directing Mrs. Grose to take Flora to her uncle, the governess confronts Miles alone and tries to liberate him from the ghosts by extracting a confession of his past sins. At the climactic moment, Quint’s specter appears at a window, in response to which the governess shields Miles, who confesses his crimes and then dies in the governess’s arms.

There the story ends, and one can see why it has elicited the large volume of commentary that it has. The reader cannot know whether the ghosts are real or are a product of the governess’s hysteria. One does not know if Miles is guilty, as he admits, or is prodded into a false confession by the governess’s incessant inquisition; the reader is not told why Miles dies.

The Ambassadors

First published: 1903

Type of work: Novel

An American comes to Paris to rescue a young friend from the clutches of a European woman but discovers that the morals he has been sent to protect must be sacrificed to more cosmopolitan values.

The Ambassadors, the first-written but second-published of James’s final trilogy, resurrects his early preoccupation with the effect of European travel on Americans. James’s handling of the theme here, however, is infinitely richer and more nuanced than in his earlier fiction. Above all, the ambiguous relationship between aesthetic sensibility and conventional moral values is rendered with consummate skill.

Lambert Strether, a middle-aged bachelor from Woolett, Massachusetts, has been sent to Paris to bring home the son of the woman he is planning to marry, Mrs. Newsome. Strether, who has not been abroad for many years, discovers that Chad Newsome is amorously involved with a Frenchwoman, though Strether mistakenly believes at first that Chad’s love interest is the young Jeanne. Charmed by the manner in which Chad has matured during his time in Paris, Strether delays to the point that the Newsomes themselves (absent the mother) appear on the scene to take matters in hand. Strether is in a difficult position, as his material well-being depends significantly on Mrs. Newsome’s good will.

While on a solitary excursion into the French countryside, Strether fortuitously encounters Chad in a romantic interlude with his lover, who turns out to be the middle-aged Marie de Vionnet, Jeanne’s mother. Shocked, but finally persuaded that the principles by which he has lived have deprived him of a fulfilling life, Strether decides to return to the United States without disclosing the secret of Chad’s illicit liaison.

In the final scene, Strether, having renounced his obligation to the Newsomes, is approached by Maria Gostrey, a woman who has been pursuing him discreetly ever since his arrival in Europe. Strether declines her invitation to remain in Europe with her, thus reasserting his basic dignity and moral sense and depriving himself of pleasure he might otherwise have enjoyed. That Strether has, in some sense, matured does not mean that all of his ethical values have been nullified.

Declared by James himself to be his most structurally perfect work, The Ambassadors does exhibit an uncharacteristic economy and tightness in plotting. The shortest of the final three novels, it is also on the face of it the least substantial, taking as its theme the moral dilemma of a somewhat priggish man confronting the fact of adultery. Unlike The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, where the sexual relations of major characters constitute a direct betrayal of the heroine, in The Ambassadors, Strether is merely disillusioned by Chad’s having concealed the truth about his affair with Madame de Vionnet.

Readers must decide that the problem of a middle-aged man being initiated into a broader, more aesthetic universe is of intrinsic interest in order for this novel to be valued. It is an open question whether the notion of aesthetic education, on which the novel turns, can bear the weight James attributes to it.

The Golden Bowl

First published: 1904

Type of work: Novel

An American heiress marries an impoverished Italian prince, only to discover that an old friend, who has become her father’s wife, has been carrying on an affair with the heiress’s husband.

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.

The Aspern Papers

First published: 1888 (collected in The Aspern Papers, 1888)

Type of work: Novella

Having learned that some letters of poet Jeffrey Aspern are in the possession of the poet’s former mistress in Venice, an American editor attempts to purloin them.

A minor masterpiece, The Aspern Papers is perhaps not so familiar to nonaficionados of James as “The Beast in the Jungle” or The Turn of the Screw. Combining intrigue, seduction, and James’s great gift for psychological subtlety, this tale deserves to be ranked among James’s greatest short fictions.

A nameless editor who has devoted his life to publishing all the bits and scraps he can gather of the fictional American poet Jeffrey Aspern learns that Aspern’s former lover, Juliana Bordereau, has kept Aspern’s love letters to her. Realizing that procuring the letters will be no easy task, the editor schemes to obtain them by first renting rooms in the Venetian palazzo occupied by Juliana and her spinster niece Tita, then attempting to charm both the women. As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that the conniving editor, whom Juliana will call a “publishing scoundrel,” is himself being manipulated. He believes that by wooing Tita he will gain access to the letters, and indeed one night does steal into Juliana’s quarters, only to be caught in the act by Juliana herself.

He leaves Venice in shame, returning to discover that Juliana has died and the papers are in Tita’s hands. She has been ordered to burn them rather than let anyone else see them, but she offers that Juliana’s edict would not apply to a family member. Repulsed by the prospect of marrying the plain and somewhat dull Tita, the editor flees, only to return in the evening and request an interview with Tita the next day. As she enters the room, he beholds her transformed (by his imagination) and realizes that he is indeed willing to “pay the price,” as he puts it. He has come too late, however, for Tita has already destroyed the papers. In a fine touch of cruelty, worthy of the dead Juliana, Tita discloses that she burned them one at a time and that consequently “It took a long time—there were so many.”

Doubtless, this story resonates with James’s fears as a writer of having his bones picked over after death, but the tale’s power derives less from this personal anxiety, which many writers have experienced, than from its taut plot with its delineation of cunning and calculation. The unscrupulous editor is, finally, no match for the wily Juliana, nor even for the suddenly crafty Tita—or has Tita’s guile been here all along? Has she been a willing accomplice to Juliana’s machinations? The tale leaves this as a tantalizing possibility. Like Aspern’s letters, which are never actually produced, the contents of Tita’s consciousness remain an insoluble mystery to the end.

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