The development of the historic sense in Henry James
Carter, David Michael, Department of English, University of Virginia
Winner, Anthony, Department of English, University of Virginia
Kolb, Harold, Department of English, University of Virginia
Armstrong, Paul, Department of English, University of Virginia
Henry James could dogmatically praise the ways and the standards of the past. From the early Italian essays to The American Scene, he often rhapsodized over Europe's respect for custom and cultural beauty while deploring America's antagonism to tradition. Yet James's fictional portrayal of historical influences on character is much more ambivalent. While his people are sometimes nourished by their heritages, they can also be harmed by the lingering forces of the past.
James could be so apprehensive about the constraints of the past because he so respected the vitality of the private self. From Christina Light in the early Roderick Hudson to Maggie Verver in his final novel, The Golden Bowl, he emphasized the dynamic, essentially benevolent imaginative and emotional power lurking within the depths of individual personality. But since genuine visions and feelings are so private and inarticulate, James's characters must search for a vocabulary to express their profoundest impulses. They need a language in order to articulate, and thereby to understand, their selves.
In the early novels The American and Roderick Hudson, history often prohibits this search. The familial and cultural pasts of the characters limit their attempts to find rewarding social occupations, or even to marry the person he or she loves. Christina Light's mother's guilty past (which .is associated with the larger Roman past) forces Christina to marry the unwanted Prince Casamassima. And while a Christopher Newman can break from the prison of his native culture's traditions, he becomes at first trapped, and finally silenced, by even more powerful European customs.
In The Portrait of Lady, historical influences can be nearly as destructive to private ambition as they are in earlier works. But the differing manner in which they act marks a significant change in James's historic sense. Isabel's initial failure to develop her potential for passionate affection and mature vision results as much from her infatuation with repressive historical models as from the tyranny of her husband. And for a while after she breaks from Osmond's influence, she continues to neglect her own appetite for life in favor of her fascination with the tragedy of Roman history. Yet James finally hints that Isabel may be able to use her extensive interpretative powers as a way of realizing the potential in her self instead of restraining it. When she visits Gardencourt for the last time, she begins to appreciate her vitality and durability as well as to admit her losses.
After the predominant pessimism of his early fiction, James sees both limits to the past's force and a liberating strength in the individual's imagination. The conclusion of The Portrait of a Lady contains only a hope that Isabel can develop her imaginative and emotional depths of personality. And such a hope is buried nearly out of sight in the novels of the eighties. With The Spoils of Poynton and What Maisie Knew, however, James remounts the struggle against determinism. He envisions less and less unavoidable historical influence on his people and more and more possible independence of thought and action. Indeed, history becomes more of a sign of the individual's creative strength than a limitation on it. With Lambert Strether and Milly Theale, James creates a dynamic synthesis between character and the past: the vocabulary these characters use to express their instincts and intuitions is derived from the very structure that Isabel often finds so burdensome--history. Many of the late protagonists look to the ·past neither to discover their unalterable destiny nor to exaggerate their futility, but to create metaphors that will allow them to express themselves in society. History still profoundly affects character in James's late works, but it provides a plethora of options for self-articulation as well as cause for restraint. These protagonists use historical metaphors in order to conquer the unnecessary impositions of the past.
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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
James, Henry, 1843-1916, Criticism and interpretation, Characters, Characters and characteristics in literature
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