Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067

Readers and critics alike at times feel frustrated with Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, the careful, detailed record of the emergence of a young girl’s consciousness. James scholars are still puzzled over why the artist turned a serious novel over to such an apparently unsophisticated protagonist, and some have wondered whether a complex, realistic social satire can be communicated through a medium who does not understand much of what she sees. Critics are equally perplexed at the moral ambiguity around which the plot of the novel revolves, an uncertainty the novel’s disturbing conclusion does nothing to dispel. Such responses are probably inevitable, for What Maisie Knew seems to have escaped even the control of its author.

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Written during a period of artistic transition for James, the novel is a strange mixture of the kind of masterful storytelling that characterizes such early works as Washington Square (1880) and the psychological complexity of later masterworks such as The Golden Bowl (1904). Perhaps the transitional aspect of the novel is best illustrated by the fact that James himself was not sure how long the manuscript should be. He originally conceived the work as a short story in which a young innocent is victimized by adults whose motives she cannot hope to fathom. The detailed notebooks James kept during the process of planning the story show that the idea grew steadily in James’s imagination. Maisie’s case became compelling for the writer, and he worked on the book with the kind of curiosity associated more with a reader than with an author. This sense of an outcome beyond anyone’s control finds its way into the finished version of the novel in the form of the narrator’s frequent admissions that, since what Maisie knows is so often more than she can put into thoughts or words, it is all one can do to follow the child’s development, let alone interpret or control it. When even an author cannot make complete sense of a novel’s events, a reader must expect some degree of uncertainty. Some aspects of the paradoxical nature of What Maisie Knew seem destined to remain unresolved.

From the outset, the novel is calculated to test the moral stance of its readers. James presents an abundance of low behavior but does not balance the text by providing high ground to which the heroine or the reader might escape. While the fact that the novel begins with a divorce was not enough to offend their sense of propriety, readers at the end of the nineteenth century were still unused to the practice. The hint of scandal surrounding Beale and Ida Farange’s divorce would probably have been palpable even if James had not emphasized the “bespattered” and “damaged” condition in which Maisie’s parents emerged from their ordeal. The undercurrent of dishonesty and adultery accompanying the divorce foreshadows not only the new lovers that both Beale and Ida take thereafter but also the irresponsible behavior of Maisie’s estranged parents in communicating their hostilities through their daughter. The hateful words Beale and Ida send each other on the lips of their young daughter become “an epitaph for the tomb of Maisie’s childhood.” This mistreatment is compounded in the course of the novel in further examples of neglect and emotional cruelty suffered by the likable child, in whose confused thoughts it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to dwell.

The characters who might improve Maisie’s lot, Miss Overmore, Sir Claude, and Mrs. Wix, each with whom Maisie falls in love, all fall short. They all use their bond with Maisie in attempts to forge or secure their relationships with each other or with Beale and Ida. The caretaking love of an adult that should surround and protect a child is invariably corrupted in the novel by the adults’ sexual love for each other. By making sexual or romantic attachment the barrier to the nurturing that Maisie needs, James makes the traditional solution to Maisie’s problems, a new mother and father, impossible to attain. Any pair that might emerge from the chaotic nexus of relations—Beale and Miss Overmore, Ida and Sir Claude, or Sir Claude and Mrs. Wix—would necessarily be lovers first and surrogate parents second. Because their relationships are based on sex, they are morally inappropriate guardians for Maisie. James’s complex moral scheme weaves an insoluble paradox. In fact, he mocks the very possibility of a moral solution to the problems of the novel.

Mrs. Wix continually browbeats Maisie with the concept of moral correctness. She teaches the child disgust for the sexual relationships of the other adults (while secretly coveting just such a bond with Sir Claude). James makes Mrs. Wix the emblem of moral perspective by using the term “straighteners” for the woman’s eyeglasses. As Mrs. Wix confronts the possibility of losing Maisie and Sir Claude forever, she becomes furious with moral outrage. The innocent Maisie watches as the governess’s “straighteners . . . seemed to crack with the explosion of their wearer’s honesty.” Here it becomes clear that hypocrisy is the cause of the moral disintegration of the novel’s perspective.

James seems to be declaring that it is precisely in those moments of ethical and emotional dilemmas when good judgment is most urgently required that good judgment breaks down and solutions become impossible. Because the adults who are attracted to each other (although Sir Claude does not desire Mrs. Wix) cannot pair off without continuing the cycle of scandal, Maisie’s options eventually dwindle down to the hope that one of her caretakers will forsake sexual desires and commit exclusively to her. The novel’s most poignant scene occurs in a provincial French train station, when Sir Claude appears to be considering the possibility of escaping to Paris with the little girl. The prose in this passage is full of pseudoromantic tension, and it may be that Sir Claude himself senses that, for he lets the train to Paris go and thus renounces both his claim on and responsibility for the pathetic little girl. Maisie’s return trip across the Atlantic with Mrs. Wix is a typically Jamesian solution to an ethical muddle. In the works of James, life’s complexities do not yield to simple solutions, nor do misdeeds result in happy endings. This lesson is particularly painful in What Maisie Knew because an innocent child is the victim.

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