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 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...
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