Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5131
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 words such as “figured” (as in “it figured for him”), “lucid” or “lucidly” (as in “he said it lucidly”), “idea” (as in “he had his idea of”), and a phrase such as “she took it in” to signify an understanding of a remark. Also, “theory”—in a phrase such as “she had a theory that”—appears many times. It is not surprising that certain terms might emerge frequently in a canon as large as James’s, but his evident affection for particular expressions such as the foregoing ones does seem odd in a writer whose repertoire of verbal expression appears to be boundless. It would, for example, be hard to think of another writer, who, in characterizing the grim conversation of Mrs. Bowerbank, in The Princess Casamassima, would be able to suggest it by noting, “her outlook seemed to abound in cheerless contingencies.”
All in all, however, there is little of James’s subject matter and technique that has escaped the close inspection of scholarship. Possibly the greatest shift of critical emphasis in James scholarship has been the increasing awareness of the moral thrust of his work. Early critics frequently charged that no consistent moral attitude was clearly expressed in his work. In later times, this concern evaporated, with a realization that James was an insightful moralist who understood that general rules are of little use in dealing with complex social and personal situations. He tended to treat each novel as a sort of special problem, to be worked out by the characters. From his total production, however, two “principles” have issued: The author was a firm believer in freedom and in personal development. To become a true hero or heroine in a James novel, a character must achieve a state of self-realization (again, an acute act of consciousness is needed), must recognize the truth and face it bravely, must act freely (without emotional dependence on others), and must renounce any personal gain in order to promote the welfare of others. In this way, the person attains true personal development and achieves as much freedom as James believed the world could offer—he did not subscribe to the doctrine that human liberty is unlimited. The basic moral conflict in his novels is essentially between powerful, often heartless or thoughtless, oppressors, such as Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady and Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians, and their “victims,” such as Isabel Archer, in the former work, and Verena Tarrant, in the latter.
James’s reputation, already high, is continuing to rise and is likely to continue to do so. The adaptation of several of his works for the cinema (Daisy Miller, The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Wings of the Dove) and television (The Ambassadors, The Turn of the Screw, “The Author of Beltraffio,” The Spoils of Poynton, and The Golden Bowl) is perhaps a superficial indication of increasing acclaim, but the burgeoning of critical attention is not. There is no question that James belongs, in Leavis’s phrase, squarely in the “great tradition” of the novel.
Daisy Miller, which established James’s reputation as a leading novelist both in England and the United States, announces several of his recurring themes and motifs. The story is an uncomplicated one, from the standpoint of plot. Frederick Winterbourne, a sophisticated young American who lives in Europe, meets Daisy Miller, who is visiting Europe with her mother and younger brother; Mr. Miller is back in Schenectady, New York, presumably making enough money to allow his family to travel comfortably. The essence of the novella is the relationship that develops between the young, cosmopolitan expatriate (a not uncommon type in James’s fiction) and the pretty, naïve, and willful girl.
In Daisy Miller a central issue is whether Winterbourne could have prevented the tragedy that ends Daisy’s life. As he gets to know her better and comes to like her, he becomes increasingly distressed at Daisy’s refusal to heed the warnings of Mrs. Costello, his aunt, and Mrs. Walker, another Europeanized American society matron (it is significant that the people who most condemn Daisy are not native Europeans but expatriates). Daisy stubbornly continues to consort with the gigolo Giovanelli, who is seen with her all about Rome, much to the dismay of the society people, who are scandalized by such “loose” behavior—even the Romans joke about it in a subdued fashion, which only irritates Winterbourne the more. He tries to warn Daisy that she is seen too much with Giovanelli—“Everyone thinks so”—but she refuses to take his cautions seriously: “I don’t believe a word of it. They’re only pretending to be shocked. They don’t really care a straw what I do.” This perverse attitude finally leads to Daisy’s death, when she goes, against Winterbourne’s urging, to the Colosseum at night (a place that, after dark, was reputed to have a miasma often fatal to foreigners) and contracts a mortal fever. When Winterbourne angrily asks Giovanelli why he took Daisy to such a dangerous place, the Italian answers, “she—she did what she liked.”
The complexity of the moral nuances of the story is revealed when one remembers that Winterbourne, who is regarded as quite the perfect young gentleman and is welcomed in the best society, has a mistress back in Geneva. Clearly, in that “best” society what matters is not virtue (Daisy is quite guiltless of any actual wrongdoing) but the appearance of it—Winterbourne may not be virtuous, but he is discreet. The old theme of appearance versus reality thus emerges in this story, but with social implications not found in the work of other authors. To James, one of the most difficult problems for Americans trying to come to terms with Europe is that the appearance of virtue often counts for more than the reality. This problem is seen quite plainly in The Reverberator, written ten years later, in which an American businessman is puzzled that a French family is upset over some scandalous things said about them in a newspaper; so far as he is concerned, such things do not matter so long as they are not true.
James’s realism is most evident in the close of the story. Winterbourne is remorseful over Daisy’s death. He regrets that he did not try harder to understand her and correct her misconceptions. He tells his aunt, “She would have appreciated one’s esteem.” Then, he applies the lesson to himself: “I’ve lived too long in foreign parts.” So far, the story has seemed to advance a moral thesis about the corruption of innocence and the valuable truths that can be learned. James closes the novella, however, on a note that proves how realistic his vision of human nature was: Nevertheless he soon went back to live at Geneva, whence there continue to come the most contradictory accounts of his motives of sojourn: a report that he’s “studying” hard—an intimation that he’s much interested in a very clever foreign lady.
James had no illusions about people.
The Portrait of a Lady
While Daisy Miller is told in the first person, from Winterbourne’s consciousness, The Portrait of a Lady, a much longer and more complicated fiction, is related through the minds of a number of characters. This book is probably the most generally admired of all James’s full-length novels. It carries the international theme to what some consider its highest level of expression, and it offers the reader one of the most impressive characters in James’s work, the delightful Isabel Archer, the “lady” of the title. Again, James is psychologically realistic: While Isabel is honest, intelligent, and sensitive, she is not without fault; she does have “an unquenchable desire to think well of herself.” She is an “innocent abroad” who is “affronting her destiny.” This fate is to be given, first, the chance to visit Europe (offered by Lydia Touchett, her wealthy aunt who lives in Europe) and, then, a great deal of money (provided by the will of Daniel Touchett, at the suggestion of his son, Ralph, who becomes very fond of Isabel). This combination of high connections—Mr. Touchett associates with a number of prominent English families, most significantly that of Lord Warburton—opportunities for travel, and comfortable circumstances is common in James’s novels.
In The Portrait of a Lady, James studies the relationships of the characters in great detail. When Lord Warburton proposes to Isabel, the situation is examined closely, and her rejection of him prepares for later plot developments and revelations of character. As is often the case with James, the money that Isabel inherits is both a blessing and a curse. It permits her to travel and to live almost lavishly, but it also attracts to her one of the few outright villains in James’s fiction.
Gilbert Osmond appears to be charming, modest, intelligent, and sensitive. He proves to be proud, arrogant, idle, and cruel. In a powerful enunciation of the international theme, Osmond courts Isabel cleverly, appealing to her sense of the artistic wonders of Europe, of which he seems to be a fine judge. He wins her hand, partly through the efforts of Madame Serena Merle, an American expatriate (as is Osmond) who, Isabel later discovers, was once Osmond’s mistress (they could not marry, since neither was wealthy—the topic of marrying for money is one that James explored as thoroughly as any writer ever had and with greater insight). Mme Merle is eager for Osmond to marry well, since they have a daughter, Pansy, whom she wishes to see well placed in the world. With James’s usual subtlety and with his use of a device that again proves effective in The Golden Bowl, Isabel first suspects the unacknowledged intimacy between Mme Merle and Osmond when she sees them through a window, in a room in which she is standing and he is seated—such social touches mark James’s fiction repeatedly; to him, the social graces were a great deal more than simply pleasant decorations on the fringes of human intercourse.
Of course, the marriage is a failure. Osmond comes to resent Isabel, and eventually she despises him. In the famous chapter 42, Isabel examines the grim condition of her life. In an extended passage of what is clearly a precursor of the stream-of-consciousness technique, James causes Isabel to review the terrible errors she has made—“It was her deep distrust of her husband—this was what darkened her world”—and to consider how foolish her pride has made her: Ralph Touchett, among others, warned her against Osmond. Isabel’s stubbornness and refusal to heed wise advice reminds one of Daisy Miller’s similar folly. The plot becomes more complex when Lord Warburton directs his affections to Pansy. Naturally, Osmond is highly in favor of such a marriage, since Warburton is very rich. Isabel incurs her husband’s even more intense hatred by discouraging the English peer with the simple argument that he and Pansy do not really love each other. Here, European corruption (expressed in an American expatriate, as is often the case in James’s fiction) is opposed to American innocence and emotional integrity.
The conclusion of this novel is among James’s most subtle and ambiguous. Isabel returns to England to visit the deathbed of Ralph Touchett. His death has been prepared for by the announcement in the first chapter that he is in poor health. In fact, Ralph is one of James’s truly virtuous characters, as is shown by his renunciation of any thought of marrying Isabel, whom he loves, because of his failing physical condition. Isabel admits to Ralph that he was right and that she committed a monumental error in marrying Osmond. Ralph, typically, blames himself for having provided her with the money that tempted Osmond; Isabel refuses this excuse, recognizing that the mistake was her own.
The puzzling aspect of the last pages of the novel is that Isabel determines to go back to Osmond as his wife. Several explanations have been offered, all of them proving the profound depth of James’s penetration of human motives. The most dramatic is that Isabel’s confrontation with her old lover from America, Casper Goodwood, is so violent—he seizes her and kisses her passionately—that it frightens her (perhaps arousing an unsettling sexuality in her nature) into returning to a life that may be despicable but is safe. Another, more likely reason for the decision is that Isabel has become fond of Pansy and has promised to come back and help her to advance in life along sound and honorable lines. The most subtle reason may be that Isabel is simply too proud to admit her blunder openly to the world, which a separation would do, and prefers to live in misery rather than escape to what she would regard as shame. Whatever the true cause of her resolution (and they might all be operative), she starts back to Rome immediately. In the last passage of the book, however, Isabel’s old friend and confidant, Henrietta Stackpole, suggests to Caspar that he must have patience—evidently a hint that this loyal friend of Isabel believes that she will not stay with Osmond forever.
Scholars who believe that James attained the peak of his treatment of the international theme in this novel point to the delicate illumination of Isabel’s growing awareness of the sinister undertones of life and to the gallery of superb portraits of ineffectual innocence (as in Ralph, who is all goodwill and yet helps to ruin Isabel’s life), black evil (in Mme Merle and Osmond), and admixtures of positive and negative traits, as in Mrs. Touchett, who is essentially well-intentioned but supremely intransigent (she does not live with the mild-mannered Mr. Touchett, and “the edges of her conduct were so very clear-cut” that they “had a knife-like effect”). Even if the reader is not quite ready to agree with the judgment of Leavis that this novel, along with The Bostonians, is one of “the two most brilliant novels in the language,” it seems difficult to deny that The Portrait of a Lady is the articulate treatment of the international theme in American literature.
James omitted The Bostonians from the New York edition because it deals with purely American subjects, Americans in the United States; it has no trace of the international theme. The Bostonians was undervalued by critics as well as by its author, and it has taken many years for readers to recognize the novel as, in Leavis’s words, “a wonderfully rich, intelligent and brilliant book.” Aside from focusing on a social topic, a rare instance of this emphasis in James, The Bostonians also treats skillfully another subject much on his mind during this era: the problems and aberrations of obsessed, disturbed people. The conflict between the old-fashioned conservative southerner, Basil Ransom, and his New England cousin, Olive Chancellor, makes for a novel full of tension and animation. Some of the modern interest in the book results from what has been judged a “nearly lesbian” relationship between Olive and Verena Tarrant, the attractive girl who is the source of the antagonism. As Irving Howe suggests in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Bostonians (1956), the fact that people of James’s era did not have modern terms of reference such as “lesbian” does not mean that they knew less about these kinds of relationships.
The social problem underlined by the novel is that of women’s rights, the difficulty being, of course, that women had few of them. Today, the victories that have been won for the right of women to vote, hold office, and the like are taken for granted, but a reading of The Bostonians makes clear how much painful and dreary effort went into creating these advances. As usual, however, James treats the issue specifically, in terms of individual people. In discussing the book later, James said that he took too long to get the story going and provided too much background for the characters. Many current readers, however, judge the background both necessary and interesting. It is, for example, important that Ransom be presented in both a positive and negative light, in order to prepare adequately for the somewhat ambiguous resolution of the plot. As a southerner who has come North to practice the law in a location that will provide him with opportunities not available in the war-ravaged South (it is a clever touch that James causes him to be a Civil War veteran, now living in the region populated by his recent enemies; in this way James emphasizes Basil’s sense of alienation and loneliness), Ransom is both appealing—he has “a fine head and such magnificent eyes”—and repelling: “He was very longand he looked a little hard and discouraging, like a column of figures.”
Ransom proves very hard and discouraging. Once he meets Verena Tarrant, the daughter of a “mesmeric healer” of dubious integrity (James’s depiction of this character is further evidence of his rich fund of humor), who has become, by some natural inspiration, an eloquent platform speaker on behalf of the movement to extend the rights of women, the stage is set for the great contention. Olive Chancellor reluctantly allows Basil to become acquainted with VerenA&Mdash;by this time, the well-to-do Boston spinster has already been overwhelmed by the innocent charm of the naïve girl. Thus, the battle lines are drawn early. Ransom soon realizes that Verena should be married, preferably to him, instead of wasting her life on a fruitless and, in his opinion, misguided cause. Ransom believes that the highest destiny to which a woman can aspire is “to make some honest man happy.” He finds a formidable opponent in Olive, whose zeal for reform inspires her widowed sister, Mrs. Luna, who believes the whole movement to be ridiculous (since she is very interested in romantic relationships with men, particularly Ransom, for a time), to remark that “she would reform the solar system if she could get hold of it.” The wit that James displays at the expense of the movement may seem to indicate that he, too, thinks it ridiculous. As usual, however, the author is fair, offering a warm and sensitive picture of Miss Birdseye (a character who caused James to be much criticized in his own time, since many readers believed her to be based closely on a highly respected member of the Peabody family of Boston—James always denied the charge), an old reformer who has been pursuing the cause for decades.
Verena and Basil meet but a handful of times before theclimax of the novel, but their dialogues are artfully designed by the author to reveal that Verena, who has been welcomed into Olive’s home as a permanent guest (the Boston spinster, while having no gift for oratory herself, is fully committed to Verena’s promulgation of the cause—she is also deeply and possessively committed to Verena personally, having once cried passionately, “Promise me not to marry!”), is slowly becoming interested in Ransom. Finally, when he believes that he can afford to marry, a conviction that seems somewhat optimistic, since his career has advanced very slowly, and since his belief is based on the publication of only one essay on political and social philosophy, he proposes to Verena. James has not been widely accused of depending on coincidences in his plots, as have, for example, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, but a number of them do appear. In this case, Verena turns to Olive and away from Basil chiefly because Miss Birdseye, of whom she is very fond, dies shortly after the proposal.
These circumstances lead to the highly dramatic scene at the Boston Music Hall, where Verena is scheduled to address a large crowd. Ransom, learning of the planned address, arrives, manages to get backstage (to the door of the dressing room, which is guarded by a large Boston police officer, provided by the fearful and distraught Olive), and forcefully urges Verena to go away with him. She ultimately accedes to his coercion (he seizes her and almost pushes her out the door), leaving Olive weeping and desolate. James, in his customary evenhanded dealing with themes and characters, makes it clear that the marriage of Basil and Verena will certainly be anything but “happy ever after.” Verena is in tears when she is ushered from the theater by her lover, and in the last sentence of the book, James provides a typically ominous forecast of their future: “It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she is about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.” Many readers find it astonishing that James could have so underrated this penetrating study of social movements and human beings torn between personal loyalties and abstract ideals. The climactic final scene is the most dramatic and lively that James ever wrote. This is, however, clearly not the end of the story. As Conrad has said, “One is never set at rest by Mr. Henry James’s novels. His books end as an episode in life ends. You remain with the sense of the life still going on.”
The Ambassadors, which James considered “frankly, quite the best, ’all round,’ of my productions,” is now generally rated as one of his masterpieces (some critics believe it to be far and away the most accomplished work of the major phase). Like many of his novels, it was based on an incident in real life. In his notebooks, James recalls being told of a visit that his old friend William Dean Howells made to Paris in his later years. According to the anecdote, told to James by Jonathan Sturges, Howells, overcome by the beauty of Paris, remarked to his youthful friend, “Oh, you are young, you are young—be glad of it: be glad of it and live. Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to.” This passage, and the rest of the speech, is almost word for word that made by the middle-aged Lambert Strether, the hero of The Ambassadors, to Little Bilham (a character thought to have been based on Sturges) in the beautiful Parisian garden of the artist Gloriani (a character carried over from Roderick Hudson; James sometimes became so interested in a character that he revived him for a later novel).
Strether is indeed an “ambassador.” He has been given the unenviable assignment (by his formidable patron, Mrs. Abel Newsome) of persuading her son, Chadwick Newsome, to return to his family and commercial responsibilities in Woollett, Massachusetts (probably representing Worcester, Massachusetts). The primary subject of this novel is joie de vivre; this quality is just what Strether finds when he arrives in Paris, where he has not been since he was a young man. It has been observed that one of the salient aspects of James’s fiction is irony. Nowhere is this quality more in evidence than in The Ambassadors. Chad Newsome, Strether discovers, has been made a gracious gentleman by his life in Paris; Strether, charmed by the beauty and enchantment of the city, cannot in good conscience urge Chad to leave delightful Paris for dull Woollett. The irony lies in the fact that Chad is quite willing and, finally, eager to return home to make a great deal of money (the family business is very successful; it manufactures some useful article, which is, typically, unidentified by James), while Strether longs to remain in Paris. Indeed, his delay in dispatching Chad home impels Mrs. Newsome to send her intimidating daughter, Mrs. Sarah Pocock, and her husband to take up the commission, since Strether has evidently failed. Thus the forces of philistinism are present, enlivening the conflict.
This conflict is chiefly in the mind of Strether, since, in this novel, James undertook to employ the third-person limited point of view to its fullest effect. As usual, the situation is not as simple as it appears. It is not merely residence in Paris that has “civilized” Chad; it has also been his mistress, Mme Marie de Vionnet. Strether, before he knows of the intimacy between his young friend and this sophisticated and charming lady, develops an intense admiration and affection for her. Even after he learns of the liaison, accidentally seeing the two rowing on a river near an inn where they are staying, Strether is still entranced by Marie de Vionnet. When Chad decides to return home and abandon his mistress (who has been reviled, to Strether’s dismay, by Mrs. Pocock, who refers to Chad’s relationship with her as “hideous”), Strether recognizes her tragedy (“You are fighting for your life!”) and is extremely sympathetic. He has, however, his own problems. Thanks to Mrs. Newsome’s already aroused suspicions and Sarah Pocock’s expected damning report, Strether sees that his comfortable position in Woollett (and possibly eventual marriage to his widowed employer) is very likely gone: “It probably was all at an end.”
The renunciation theme, so prominent in James’s novels, is perhaps more powerfully formulated at the close of this novel than in any other of his books. Despite the appeal of Paris, and the hinted offer of an agreeable marriage to Maria Gostrey, an American expatriate who had befriended Strether when he first landed in Europe, this highly moral and responsible man resolves to return to Woollett, where he believes his duty to lie. He cannot help Mme de Vionnet. He cannot help himself. This sort of ethical resolution may seem foolish to modern readers, but it is believable in the novel, and the circumstances suggest James’s belief that, in current terms, there is a price tag on everything, even happiness. The novel, then, is not only a tribute to Paris and the life of cultural elevation that it can provide but also the necessity of responsible and considerate action. James admitted that he learned a great deal from George Eliot; he shared her conviction that duty is absolute in the ethical universe. The temptation of Strether is almost overwhelming, but his New England sense of duty compels him to conquer it. It is difficult to think of another novelist, or, indeed, another novel, that illuminates so brightly the significance of conscientious moral choices.
Henry James’s contributions to the evolution of the modern novel are of staggering magnitude and diversity. Perhaps his greatest contribution was best summed up by Ezra Pound shortly after James’s death: “Peace comes of communication. No man of our time has so labored to create means of communication as did the late Henry James. The whole of great art is a struggle for communication.”