Henry James and the measure of reality

Walsh, Kathleen, English, University of Virginia
Levenson, J. C., English, University of Virginia
Booth, Alison, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia

A modern fascination with the image of man adrift without an epistemological oar has led to a critical emphasis on opacity and subjectivity in Henry James's fiction. However, analysis of a broad spectrum of James's work demonstrates that his characters are consistently held to be capable of achieving a measure of certainty. William James, in his substitution of truth-as- “verifiability” for truth-as-essence Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth, provides an analogue for the testing of perceptions which occurs in Henry's fiction.
Henry James’s response to the possibility of unverifiable existence is pivotal in his career: his increasing awareness of this prospect substantiates the accepted divisions of his canon. His early works display a nineteenth-century confidence and dilate on errors of judgment: it is the nature of people to be overly complacent, confident, or innocent, and of reality to be made clear eventually. Mistaken impressions dominate in Roderick Hudson, The American, The Europeans, Confidence, and the first forty-one chapters of The Portrait of a Lady. In his middle period, James's technical focus on a central consciousness corresponds with an increased immersion in the experience of impeded perception. For Hyacinth Robinson, Maisie Farange, the narrators of “The Aspern Papers” and “The Figure in the Carpet,” and the telegraphist of “In the Cage,” consciousness is not simply a tool for knowing, but a possible trap or limit to knowledge. James's interest in the problem of unrelieved uncertainty culminates “The Turn of the Screw” and The Sacred Fount, experiments through which James rejects unverifiable existence as a significant subject for his art.
In James's “Major Phase,” his lucid reflectors do not know everything--hence the complexity--but they are able to test their perceptions, confirm crucial insights, and enjoy--and use--illumination. The three great dramas of knowing, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, present a world which is shifty, complex, and relativistic, but in which some confirmation frees the protagonist to shift from the building of impressions to the making of a new arrangement.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
James, Henry, 1843-1916--Criticism and interpretation
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: