Critical interest in The Sacred Fount centers on the credibility of the inquisitive and sometimes intrusive unnamed narrator who tells the story of a weekend gathering at an English country manor. From his perspective, the guests who gather at Newmarch all have hidden lives, and he is determined to discover the truth about them. He is particularly obsessed with determining how Grace Brissenden grew younger as a result of her marriage, while her husband seems to have withered. Equally intriguing to him is the fact that the same pattern seems to have affected two other characters who are not supposed to be attached in any way: Gilbert Long, who suddenly becomes interesting and exciting after being considered a dullard for years, and May Server, once a vibrant creature but now exhausted and near the point of a breakdown. The qualities of such relationships intrigue the narrator, and he spends all of his time concocting theories about romantic relationships (including a number of illicit affairs among the various characters) that can account for the changes he observes. The narrator commits himself to discover “the sacred fount,” that source of inspiration from which people such as Mrs. Brissenden and Long draw their power.
Viewed in this fashion, the novel is a kind of detective story in which the narrator serves as the sleuth. The problem, however, is not so simple as who did it. Far from being the insightful Sherlockian figure of typical detective fictions, Henry James’s narrator often finds himself making assumptions that are not shared by others. In fact, as he learns at the end of the story, his conclusions about a number of characters are off the mark, assuming that Mrs. Brissenden’s final indictment is to be believed. Whether she is simply setting the narrator straight so that he will quit his meddling, or creating an elaborate fiction to preserve the reputations of the party at Newmarch, is also not clear. The narrator in The Sacred Fount is either a perceptive observer of society, capable of detecting meaning and motive in the slightest gesture, or a hopelessly deluded intruder whose incessant pursuit of evil wrecks the lives of those he believes he is...
(The entire section is 900 words.)