Henry James Long Fiction Analysis
Henry James’s distinctive contributions to the art of the novel were developed over a long career of some fifty years. Leon Edel, possibly the most renowned and respected James scholar, has indicated that James’s mature writing can be divided into three periods (with three subdivisions in the middle phase). Through the publication of The Portrait of a Lady, in 1880-1881, James was chiefly interested in the now famous “international theme,” the learning experiences and conflicts of Americans in Europe and Europeans in America (the former situation being by far the more frequent). This first period is represented by Roderick Hudson, The American, Daisy Miller, and The Portrait of a Lady. Of these works, Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady are probably the best examples of James’s early work.
The more complex second period falls into three parts. The first, roughly from 1881 through 1890, displays James’s concern with social issues (not the sort of topic for which he is known), as in The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima, the former about women’s rights in the United States and the latter concerning the class struggle in England. The second of these subperiods is that during which he created plays (many of which have never been performed) and produced a variety of short stories. The final subdivision is marked by the appearance of short and midlength fictions dealing with the problems of artists in their relationships with society (he had already touched on this subject in Roderick Hudson) and of occasionally bizarre stories, such as The Turn of the Screw and “The Altar of the Dead,” about men, women, and children who are obsessed, haunted, and perhaps insane. Some of these pieces were written during James’s calamitous endeavor with drama.
The final period, called “the major phase,” from about 1896 till the close of his career, shows James returning to the international theme. The themes of this period are most obviously exhibited in the three large novels of his later years: The Ambassadors (which was written before the next novel but published after it), The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl.
During this extended development and shifting of interests and enthusiasms, James was continuously trying to refine his presentation of character, theme, and event. In his critical writing he stated that he finally recognized the value of “the indirect presentation of his main image” (he is here speaking of Milly Theale, in The Wings of the Dove, who is seen largely through the eyes of other characters and about whom the reader learns, even of her death, chiefly by report). Several critics, perhaps the most famous being F. R. Leavis, in The Great Tradition (1948), believe this “recognition” to be a grave error; they claim that James refined his presentation beyond clear comprehension (thus the common accusation of excessive ambiguity) and eventually beyond interest. Others—perhaps the most salient is F. W. Dupee, in Henry James (1951)—aver that these three late novels are James’s masterpieces, works in which his study of the complexities of moral decisions reaches an elevation never attained by another author.
Two aspects of James’s fiction have received little attention: Not much has been written about his humor, which is usually ironic but often gentle. A fine example is his presentation of Lavinia Penniman, the foolish aunt of Catherine Sloper in Washington Square and a widow “without fortune—with nothing but the memory of Mr. Penniman’s flowers of speech, a certain vague aroma of which hovered about her own conversation.” This romantic, meddling woman is depicted by James humorously, but with a clear indication of the harm that her interference causes. The image of her “flowers of speech” suggests another neglected style: the repetition of certain key words and images throughout hiscanon. Readers can easily become distracted by frequently encountered “flower” images such as the foregoing one and key...
(The entire section is 5,131 words.)