Roderick Hudson is Henry James’s first novel. It came after many short stories, through which James had developed not only his technical skills but also many of his thematic interests. It might be said that James was interested in three themes: the problem of young men or women who need help to express themselves fully as human beings; the problem of young Americans, whom he saw as needing the experience of European society, traditions, and institutions; and money, particularly how money can be used to help promising individuals fulfill themselves.
James’s belief in the civilizing effects of Europe on young Americans must be understood in the context of the time. He wrote at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, when the United States was a less confident country than it later became. His enthusiasm for what Europe could do to polish an American (intellectually, artistically, socially, and psychologically) must be understood in conjunction with a caveat: Such an encounter could sometimes do harm, particularly since the European ethos was not without flaws that the innocent American might not be able to resist.
This novel manifests, in simpler ways than James’s later works, many of these ideas. It is a tale of a young man—Roderick Hudson—of artistic promise who needs the experience of the great world of European art and who, at least initially, proves able to profit from his experience. He learns to express himself with considerable promise. He seems personally flawed, proud of his gift, but arrogantly unconcerned about how precious it is and how susceptible he is to the distractions of pleasure, which is readily at hand in the moneyed circles in which Rowland places him. He is sometimes unable and sometimes unwilling to distinguish between the valuable aspects of European experience and its destructive temptations.
When Christina Light comes along, Roderick is unable to believe that his love can be resisted. He understands little of the least attractive powers of money and social position....
(The entire section is 848 words.)