By: Ramlal Agarwal
In the second half of the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th centuries, there was a surge in creative writing and most of the masterpieces in American and European literature came out during this period, as they did during the Renaissance. The novel became the most dominant form and received the most excruciating concern regarding its form, technique, theme, people, style, and other aspects of novel-writing. It was a period full of literary giants such as George Eliot, Dickens, Thackeray, Emily Bronte, Conrad, Lawrence, Joyce and many others in England. Flaubert, Proust, Balzac, Zola in France; Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky in Russia; Mann, Herman Hesse in Germany, Kafka in Prague; and Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Melville in America, all in a span of three-quarters of a century. Among these luminaries, we have Henry James, coming out with novel after novel, and his criticism of the Art of the Novel. Over the years, he has emerged as an iconic figure in American literature. Some of his novels, according to Walter Allen, are novels of classic perfection, never before achieved in English, in which practice and theory are consummately matched. Again, in the same vein, Allen says, “We know James as a novelist better than any other, apart from Flaubert, and in the history of the English novel, James holds a position analogous to Flaubert’s in the French: both strove to give the novel the aesthetic intensity of a great poem or a great painting.”
The Indian response to James has been lukewarm. This may be because many readers lose the thread in his long-winded style. Moreover, they can not grant his premise. However, a little patience can unfold before them a world that is full of rare beauty, dignity, and restrained sadness. James’s fictional world is full of heirs and heiresses of a large fortune. They have their own culture and morality. They are extraordinarily gifted with intelligence, poise, sophistication, and suave manners. But notwithstanding their large fortune and sophistication, they are not happy and pine away. It is a world in which heroines end up as sacrificial lambs and heroes in unfulfilled love and frustration. Henry also deals with the social causes of his time. James’s fictional world is the world of impressions and reflections. There is not enough action, and whatever action there is takes hundreds of pages of wavering, dithering, vacillating on the part of his heroes and heroines.
In his much-appreciated novel The Portrait of a Lady, we have a young, beautiful girl called Isabella living alone in a not-so-bright place. Her parents died without leaving her what might be called a handsome legacy. She has two sisters who live far away from her. She has an aunt in England who visits her and takes her to England. Her uncle, Mr. Touchett, is an old man and spends his time sipping tea in his garden. Her cousin, Ralph Touchette, is sick and keeps moving to warmer places during the English winter. He is very kind to Isabel and wants her to be happy. Mr. Touchettes, a banker and a man of great property, realizes that he may not survive for long, and wants to make some changes in his will. He consults Ralph, who persuades him to give Isabel the majority of his share without informing her of her benefactor, and Isabel becomes the heiress to a large fortune after her uncle’s death. But in her innocence of the ways of the world, Isabel is hardly overwhelmed. She spends her time thinking of beauty, bravery, and magnanimity. She is stubbornly taken up with the idea that she should and would not do anything wrong. It is in this spirit that she rejected the ardent advances of Casper Goodwood, an American businessman, and in England, she rejected the proposal of Lord Warburton, an amiable gentleman of vast estates and resources.
In Florence, she meets Mme Merle, a friend of the Touchette family who insists on her meeting Gilbert Osmand, an American expatriate in pursuit of the beautiful. Isabel is impressed by him and eventually decides to marry him. Soon she is disillusioned because Osmand was already married and had a daughter with Mme Merle, and he had an eye on Isabel’s money to marry her off. Much against her nature, she lives in a dark and cheerless place. When she comes to know that her cousin Ralph’s health is critical, she wants to be by his side, but her husband brusquely sidetracks her request. However, Isabel leaves for England. Her unhappiness is noticed by her cousin, and he feels sad for her. After his death, Isabel lives for some more time in England, where she meets her American lover, Casper. Casper urges her to get a divorce so that they can get married. He assured her that he would make her happy. Isabel bluntly refuses to entertain his pleas, but Casper becomes desperate and inexorable. Therefore, Isabel leaves for Florence without informing him or anybody. In other words, she returns to her doom. She probably returns to her doom because she realizes that she had the freedom to choose and she had chosen Osmand, and now she must face the consequences. Any other decision would mean demeaning her whole being, and she would not let it happen, come what may. It is this aspect of her character that gives her her tragic stature.
In The Bostonians, James deals with the tug of war that goes on between Miss Olive Chancellor, a feminist, and Basil Ransom, a conservative, over Miss Verena Tarrant, a charming young woman with a gift of expression. Miss Chancellor wants Miss Tarrant to devote herself to the cause of women’s emancipation, and Basil wants her to play her natural role of making a home and making him happy. It all starts when Miss Chancellor and Basil go to the salon of Miss Birdseye, where a group of reformists believing in the cause of emancipation of women usually meet and discuss the past history of women’s position in society, their present condition, and their future. At the gathering, Miss Tarrant was also present with her parents. She was already known to have impressed people with her fine gift of expression. Naturally, she is urged to address the meeting. After a good deal of coaxing, she took the floor. She began slowly but soon picked up the steam. She waxed on the gentleness and goodness of women and how during the long ages of history they have been trampled under the iron heel of man. She talked about their equality and even superiority. Everybody present was immensely impressed by Miss Tarrant. However, Basil was disappointed. He thought Miss Tarrant was as innocent as she was lovely. He regarded her as a vocalist of exquisite faculty, condemned to sing bad music. Basil thought her arguments were trite and deserved little attention, but all this didn’t matter. What disappointed him was the brazen personal exhibitionism to which she was subjected. He conveyed his thoughts to the votaries of the cause. Miss Chancellor rued her decision to bring him to the salon. She closes her doors on Basil and takes Miss Tarrant under her wings. Miss Tarrant enjoys the fame her lectures have brought her. But Basil lost no opportunity to sap her confidence in her mission. The tug of war between Miss Chancellor and Basil culminates in a crisis when Miss Tarrant is to perform at the Music Hall, which was much advertised. A huge crowd assembled at the appointed hour, and Basil was seated in the front row. Miss Tarrant had seen him and became jittery. She refuses to take the floor. When the lecture does not start, even after an hour of the appointed time, there is baying and booing and whistling. Basil covers the face of Miss Tarrant with the hood of her long cloak and takes her away from the crowd. When they are safe, Basil uncovers her face and finds that there were tears in her eyes. It is feared that it was not the last she was destined to shed. However, Basil succeeds in releasing Miss Tarrant from Miss Chancellor’s paws and also releasing Miss Tarrant from becoming a beggar for public applause and being a woman in her own right, unmindful of the tears she may have to shed in the process.
The Wings of Dove is about a true love affair sadly tainted and despoiled by greed. It is also about great fortune and great misfortune working cheek by jowl in the life of Milly Theale. In The Wings of Dove, moral taint and an inscrutable act of fate runs parallel.
Kate, the heroine of the novel, is penniless, but this does not cast a dark cloud over her spirits. She meets her shifty father in a dingy hotel and tells him blankly not to depend on her. On her way to work, she meets a young journalist, and both fall in love with each other. A strong bond emerges between Kate and her lover, Merton Densher, in spite of their straitened conditions. Soon after, Kate is invited to stay with her aunt Maud on the condition that she cut all ties with her family. Kate accepts, but her relations with Densher remain undisturbed. In the course of time, Densher is required to spend some time in America. Before leaving for America, Kate and Densher meet and swear that they will remain constant in their love.
Milly Theale, heiress to a large fortune, stunningly beautiful, totally free to take her decisions but also smitten by a fatal disease, arrives in London where she meets Kate, who introduces her to her lover, Densher. Milly had met him in New York and, during the course of their meetings, fell in love with him. Kate, who comes to know that Milly was struck with a fatal disease and would not survive for long, encourages Densher to marry her. It becomes clear that this was not an act of sacrifice but a conspiracy to appropriate Milly’s wealth after her death. Milly comes to know about the conspiracy in Venice. She leaves her fortune to Densher, turns her face to the wall, and dies. Kate says that the dove has spread her wings and forgiven them, but Densher is filled with self-revulsion and tells Kate that he would marry her without money or give her money and remain single. Finally, they get married, but not before realizing that that steady, smokeless, pure flame of love is no longer smokeless and pure.
The poignancy of it all leaves a deep impression on the reader’s mind.
In Ambassadors, Mrs. Newsome, the owner of a large business house, sends Mr. Slrether to Paris to fetch her son Chad, who, she thinks, might be ensnared by one of those immoral French women. Strether, who hoped to marry her someday, accepts the mission. In Paris, he is received by Miss Maria Gostrey, a general guide. Strether finds her charming and very intelligent. In Paris, he becomes acquainted with people Chad knew and socialized with. Madame de Vionnet is the most prominent of them. Strether finds Chad greatly improved and polished. He does not press Chad to return. Shortly, he becomes enamored of French culture. He becomes convinced that Chad must not return. Sensing the delay in accomplishing the mission by Strether, Mrs. Newsome sends another team of Chad’s sister, her husband, and Chad’s prospective wife to Paris. It succeeds in its mission and decides to leave for America with Chad. The news shatters Strether. He lost Mrs. Newsome’s favor, and he also lost much of his attraction to France. However, he decides to return to America because that was right.
James takes hundreds of pages to connect the dots of his story. This is because he is not in a hurry to tell his story. He takes his time to take in each one of his characters: his looks, the impression it makes, the impression it receives. He has a flair for presenting his characters in a heightened manner. He calls the process “dramatizing.”
Categories: Blog, Essay, Literary criticism
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