According to Henry James in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton, he perceived the germ of the short novel in a friend’s casual mention of an acrimonious conflict between a mother and her son over the disposition of the family furniture following the death of the father. “There had been but ten words, yet I recognized in them, as in a flash, all the possibilities of the little drama of my ’Spoils.’” He continues, On the face of it, the “things” themselves would form the very center of such a crisis; these grouped objects, all conscious of their eminence and their price, would enjoy, in any picture of a conflict, the heroic importance.
The “things” alone, however, must not have been enough to provoke James to immediate creation, since he left the idea unused for almost two years. In 1895, however, needing a story to fulfill an obligation to the Atlantic Monthly, James returned to the “spoils” idea and added the necessary missing ingredient, the central character.
Thus, James found the two lines of action that give the story its final shape: the conflict between Mrs. Gereth and her son, goaded on by Mona Brigstock, over the furnishings of Poynton, and the romance between Owen Gereth and Fleda Vetch. The problem of who is to get the spoils dominates the first third of the book, but by chapter 8, the center of interest has shifted to the question of who will marry Owen. The two issues are completely intertwined since Owen is actually one of the spoils himself, and his marital decision also determines the disposition of the things.
The dispute over the spoils is really a trial between two strong-willed, determined women, Mona and Mrs. Gereth, who direct their strategies through Owen and Fleda. The contest becomes ambiguous and the outcome doubtful because the “agents” prove unreliable: Owen’s emotional involvement with Fleda upsets Mona’s calculations, and Fleda’s ambivalent reactions threaten Mrs. Gereth’s design.
It is unlikely that Mona cares much for the things of Poynton for themselves. After she finally wins Owen and Poynton, she flaunts her indifference to the house by not even living there. Her tenacity in seeking the spoils is a matter of willful pride. “Mona,” wrote James, “is all will.” She insists on the furniture because it “goes with the house”—and the house goes with Owen. In addition, it is probable that Mona sees the dispute as a “test” of Owen or, rather, of her ability to control him. If she can force him to act against his mother’s deepest wishes, then she can be confident of dominance in their marriage.
Even though Mrs. Gereth is no less strong-willed and ruthless in her passion to keep control of the artifacts of Poynton, she is a considerably more sympathetic figure. If her attitude toward Poynton reveals her to be a thorough materialist, she is at least a materialist with taste; Poynton, the fruit of her labors, is a fine artistic product, and her devotion to it is passionate and complete. If she is a snob, judging people solely in terms of their taste and “cleverness,” she seems accurate in her judgments: Mona is vulgar, Owen is stupid, and Fleda is superior. If Mrs. Gereth’s actions are arrogant and extreme, they are mitigated by her situation; the English law that grants all inheritance rights directly to the son, regardless of the wife and mother’s needs, is an unjust one and, if she “collected” Fleda to use as part of a scheme to regain Poynton, she does, in the end, show genuine feeling and concern...
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toward the girl as a person, not just a “piece of furniture.”
The most sympathetic and interesting person in the story, however, is Fleda. In his preface, James identifies her as the only real character in the story, that is, the one figure of feeling and intelligence who is capable of development and change. It is through her perception and sensibility that the reader experiences the story and, in James’s words, “the progress and march of my tale became and remained that of her understanding.”
Not surprisingly, Fleda is the most complex and puzzling character in the book. Although her intelligence and moral superiority are evident throughout, her behavior frequently seems contradictory and self-defeating. Critics have disputed the motivations behind many of her actions and especially those during the crucial scenes that determine the outcome of her romance with Owen. The primary question is this: At the point where Owen says he loves her and wants to marry her, why does she send him straight back to Mona with “conditions” that virtually guarantee losing him? Or, to put it more generally, why does she throw away her one chance for happiness at the very time she seems to have it within her grasp?
In attempting to answer this question, three variables must be kept in mind: Fleda’s relationship with Mrs. Gereth, her relationship with Owen, and her own aesthetic and moral values. From the beginning, Fleda is flattered and awed by Mrs. Gereth’s attentions and compliments. The older woman sees in Fleda the perfect protégé, a girl gifted with intelligence and intuitive good taste, but with little background experience, who can be influenced, even molded, by an astute mentor. Thus, Mrs. Gereth grooms a replacement for herself who can not only keep Poynton out of Mona’s grasp but also minister to its treasures long after she, Mrs. Gereth, is gone. In matters of artistic taste, Mrs. Gereth probably has her way with Fleda, but after Owen becomes a factor, her control over the girl becomes doubtful. In addition, as the book progresses, Fleda becomes increasingly aware of being manipulated by Mrs. Gereth and, while she may not personally object to being a “piece of furniture,” she does feel quite guilty about being used as bait in a trap for Owen.
Fleda’s relations with Owen are equally problematic. At first, she rejects him on the grounds that he is “too stupid,” but even from the beginning, his amiable personality and physical desirability make a strong impression on her. As their relationship grows, Fleda’s view of him becomes more and more clouded by self-deception. Her first impressions of him as stupid and weak are accurate, but, as she falls in love with him, she suppresses these obvious insights or rationalizes them into strengths. She insists that he act with independence and maturity, yet, like Mona, she fully expects to dominate him after marriage, as can be seen when she says, “It’s because he’s so weak that he needs me.”
Fleda feels strongly attracted and obligated to both people, so she gives each of them the impression that she favors their cause. From these contending loyalties come such self-defeating acts as her persistent claim to Owen that she is winning his mother over and her lies to Mrs. Gereth regarding her emotions toward Owen and his toward her.
Thus, conflicting impulses probably determine her final self-defeating act. Because of her innate morality and her Victorian upbringing, Fleda is unable to accept the idea of winning a previously committed man away from his intended; she cannot act the part of the “designing woman”—especially in someone else’s design. Given her tendency to self-deception, she probably convinces herself that Owen can, in fact, meet the conditions she imposes; unfortunately, “her Owen” is largely imaginary, and the real Owen cannot resist a captivating Mona. Fleda seems to lack the emotional capacity, as Mrs. Gereth puts it, to “let go.” These speculations, however, do not answer the central question about Fleda: Does her final act represent a failure of nerve, a running away from life and experience? Or, does it represent the moral victory of a woman too proud to jeopardize her ethics in return for a chance at happiness? Both views, and most positions in between, have been argued by the critics with little consensus.
If Fleda’s actions cost her a life with Owen, however, her reaction to that loss demonstrates her strength of character and her mature appreciation of life. It is she who senses the meaning of Ricks and brings a measure of solace to the defeated Mrs. Gereth. It is here that readers come to understand Fleda’s aesthetic sensibility; to her, objects have moral qualities and their beauty is a product of the human experience they reflect. If she can succeed in impressing that view on her companion, a mellowed Mrs. Gereth may find a measure of happiness at Ricks—even after the accidental fire that resolves forever the fate of the spoils of Poynton.
This novel, written in the middle period of James’s career, shows the detailed character analysis, careful development, and acute insight into human affairs for which he has become famous. Here, one has a kind of tragedy, but not one in the classical sense. This novel is tragic first because many beautiful things are unavoidably given up to one who has no appreciation of them and, second, because these same objects are completely destroyed in a freak accident. The human emotions involved are seen to be somewhat mean in spite of the grandeur of the objects with which they are connected and, throughout the novel, readers have James’s astute comments on, and impressions of, the society in which these emotions and events take place.