Henry James and the savagery under civilization

The great success of James’s Washington Square is its embodiment of the paradox of massive personal interdependence and the profoundly closed nature of our respective consciousnesses. James’s is a world suffused with power. Everybody stands in relations of power to everybody else. That’s for James what societies and, even more acutely, families are: webs of power within which we are caught. But for all of the weight of dependence and responsibility that that creates, James’s is not a close world. People are caught within webs of power, but they are imprisoned within themselves. James’s characters are capsules of consciousness, sealed off from the people who share their lives by unbridgeable distances of misapprehension, and even from themselves by self-deceit. Attempts at empathy or self-exposure are doomed to failure. Ultimately we are alone, unreachable. James did for the realist novel what Marx did for politics and Freud for the self: he unmasked it. He saw through civilization. Beneath the gilded surface of impeccable, mannerly society life James saw the rawest savagery.

James enacts these ideas through the relationships between one of his doomed young heiresses, Catherine Sloper, and each of the other three major characters in the novel: her father, Dr. Austin Sloper; her Aunt, Mrs. Penniman; and her suitor, Morris Townsend. The fortune-seeking Townsend courts plain, unintelligent Catherine, who falls in love with him. Dr. Sloper opposes the marriage, threatening to cut her off. Meddlesome, fanciful Mrs. Penniman aids and abets Townsend in his efforts to marry Catherine and get his hands on her fortune. The novel is a study in the way in which the more powerful partners in these social relationships misunderstand, manipulate and destroy Catherine – the embodiment of mediocre passivity, but also the only significant character in the novel possessed of sensibility.

The father-daughter relationship is the key axis of the novel and the one in which James exposes most clearly the tenebrous undersurface of motivation. Dr. Sloper maintains vehemently throughout that he is acting in his daughter’s interest to save her from greater pain in the future. But the true nature of his motivations represents a jarringly clear-sighted expose of the actual motives driving this sort of filial protectiveness. First of all, Sloper is an aesthete. He expects to be amused and entertained by the people around him. We hear that he was ‘by no means in earnest’ and that he ‘was more than anything amused by the whole situation’; he thinks of the ‘comical side’ of the affair and believes that it offers ‘the prospect of entertainment.’ At another point he reflects gloomily that ‘paternity was, after all, not an exciting vocation.’ He also thinks of the situation as ‘a little drama’ and reflects that he has ‘no intention, as yet, of regulating the denouement.’ There is a great deal of comedy at Mrs. Penniman’s expense throughout the novel because of the fancifulness that leads her to treat the whole situation as a sort of real life counterpart of vulgar romantic fiction, but Sloper is doing the same thing only with better taste. He too takes pleasure in the idea that he is playing a dramatic role, but his is the role of a powerful man, detached and austerely patient – a sort of deus ex machina figure, revelling in the anticipation of his final appearance. One might reflect that there is something Jamesian in this stance: one of cool ironic detachment, but in which one still feels the thrill that comes from the knowledge of one’s power to determine the final disposition of things.

Sloper is more than just an amoralistic aesthete, though; he is a proud ratiocinator. Puffed up by years of professional superiority, he has come to believe in his own intellectual mastery. In a manner completely antithetical to the particularist credo of the novelist, he is a systematizer and a generaliser: he believes in ‘types,’ he mentions ‘induction’ more than once, he talks about himself as a ‘geometrical proposition’ who treats with surfaces profoundly. The key to all of this, though, is prediction. Prediction is all about power; and the way that we react to predictions is completely irrational. Somehow it seems that if we predict something and it comes true, we have made it happen. The countervention of our predictions represents a sort of attack on our ego; it reduces us to the passive, impotent role that Catherine inhabits throughout the novel. One sees something of this in the conversation between Dr. Sloper and his other sister Elizabeth Almond:

‘“It seems to make you very happy that your daughter’s affections have been trifled with.’

“It does,” said the Doctor; “for I had foretold it! It’s a great pleasure to be right.”

“Your pleasures make one shudder!” his sister exclaimed.’

And when Sloper aggressively puts his prediction to Catherine that she is about to marry and learns that he is mistaken, James writes ‘The Doctor was both puzzled and disappointed,’ his reaction being that ‘of a man losing a chance for a little triumph that he had counted on.’

For James, though, motivation has an onion-peel quality to it. There are explicitly-maintained motives for acting, motives that we hide from others and motives of which we have no knowledge ourselves. But even that is too simple a picture. The self for James is deep, complex, tiered. One can penetrate to aesthetic motives or egotistical motives, but then one can go still further and find deeply concealed, ultimate motives with all sorts of intermediate levels and the potential for dissonance between them. Sloper’s ultimate motives – those from which he is most remote, but which one senses do most to drive him – are cruel and revengeful. Catherine is to be made to suffer for not being her mother and even, one suspects, for killing her mother. The passages in which James narrates Sloper’s interior monologue are punctuated with cutting evaluations of Catherine who is: ‘not a woman of great spirit,’ ‘about as intelligent as a bundle of shawls,’ ‘a plain inanimate girl.’ We also learn that Catherine had ‘disappointed him’ and that ‘He had moments of irritation at having produced a commonplace child, and he even went so far at times as to take a certain satisfaction in the thought that his wife had not lived to find her out.’ Sloper’s hardness, his complete absence of compassion and his ultimate decision to disinherit Catherine are the discharges of a psychologically damaged personality. It was Catherine’s birth that occasioned the death of her beloved and brilliant mother. Sloper, a celebrated doctor, was unable to save her and he projects the guilt that he feels onto Catherine. This submerged hostility is compounded by his feeling that someone so eminently worthy of life has been usurped in existence, by someone obviously so much less worthy of it. Catherine disappoints him because he hopes to see the wit and intelligence of the mother reincarnated in the daughter. But he doesn’t. Instead he sees in the daughter a travesty of the mother and a shameful connection.

Much of the irony of the novel turns upon the distance between Catherine’s inner life – her subjective experience of the tortuous romance – and the way that her experiences are construed by the people who are closest to her. James is dramatising the perceptual distance that power creates. In our relationships with those to whom we are closest, those whose lives do most to determine our own, self-interest blinds us. These relationships are suspended in a sort of distorting fog of power in which the truth that we see about others is the truth that it best serves our purposes to believe. Proximity is no aid to appreciation: in essence, we are all long-sighted.

The matrimonial war of Washington Square is fought by Dr. Sloper, Mrs. Penniman and Morris Townsend on the self-serving belief that Catherine, because of her emotional stolidity, is not in real danger of suffering. No member of this triad of characters suffers under a real sense of responsibility for making Catherine suffer; partly this is because they are egotists, but partly it is because they deceive themselves as to the true costs of their behaviour. Mrs. Penniman accuses Catherine of being ‘So cold – so irresponsive.’ In the lengthy opening sketch of her character James writes:

‘She seemed not only incapable of giving surprises; it was almost a question whether she could have received one- she was so quiet and irresponsive. People who expressed themselves roughly called her stolid. But she was irresponsive because she was shy, uncomfortably, painfully shy. This was not always understood, and she sometimes produced an impression of insensibility. In reality she was the softest creature in the world.’

The ironic distance between her concealed nature and the impression of it that the other protagonists have is the space within which she is tortured. Of all the characters she is the most susceptible to pain and yet – because of her timidity and humility – the least willing to exert herself in the power struggle to protect herself.

James wants the reader to understand as well that we are not just witnessing the drawn-out sensation of pain. Our experience inscribes itself on us, reconstitutes us. In mistreating her, the three other central characters remake her. Mrs. Almond, who as a detached observer can better appraise the situation than the others, sees this when they talk of Catherine’s obstinacy and tells her brother:

‘Cling is prettier. That’s what those very simple natures always do, and nothing could be simpler than Catherine. She doesn’t take many impressions; but when she takes one she keeps it.’

The other side of this deformation of Catherine, which drains her of vitality and leaves her much closer to what they had originally taken her for, is that the powerful characters in James do not change. For Dr. Sloper, Mrs. Penniman and Morris Townsend no character arc is described. Character change for James is something that happens under the force of external pressure: we are pressed upon by the world to assume an amenable shape. If we are strong enough, socially and psychologically, to resist these pressures then we do not change. Sloper has his assurance, his intellect and his ironic distance to protect him; Townsend has his conceit, his charm and his genius for not feeling obliged in anyway to anyone; and even Mrs. Penniman has her almost inexhaustible reserves of fancifulness and romanticism. The capsules of their consciousnesses have a sort of copper-plating; Catherine as a wealthy, mediocre young woman does not.

For all of this richness and insight Washington Square is a narrow, incomplete novel. There is something abstract, staged and contrived about it: it feels like an artefact exquisitely produced; all of the edges are suspiciously smooth. The narrator – who appears shamelessly in the garb of an ‘I’ – states clearly that he is narrating only what relates to the narrative of Morris Townsend, but this feels like a false and arbitrary condition of representation. Somehow Washington Square (the house, not the novel) feels like a set. One gets the sense that if one were to look behind it one would see that it was fake – a theatrical artifice; you’d be looking at pieces of wood holding up the scenery and idle stagehands waiting for James to run out of words. If one thinks about inhabiting the novel and stepping outside the confines of the novel, one half suspects that the world wouldn’t continue once you made it past the margins of James’s prose. He has failed to create a world.

Washington Square fails – as Leavis perceived – as a realist novel and as a novel of sensation. The characters are not fully situated and embedded. We are told that we are in old New York, but James does nothing to create a recognisable milieu complete with mores, social networks, traditions. Dr. Sloper is never seen stethescope in hand and all we see of Europe is a picturesque mountainside. If we go to James in search of the spirit of mid-nineteenth century New York, if we look at Washington Square, as a historical source then what we can learn is incidental. So much of the context against which the actions of the characters would be illuminated has been lost. The novel suffers almost as much from the absence of tone, colour, atmosphere. If we go to James in search of a rich sensational experience, then we leave unsatisfied. James is a fine psychologist and he sees very deep, but in this early novel his art is somewhat technically lacking. He has created a crucible in which to explore psychology, but Washington Square wants the panoramic completeness of George Eliot’s mature novels and fails entirely to allow the reader to experience vicariously the momentary sensations of his characters as Woolf so sublimely did.

3 Responses to “Henry James and the savagery under civilization”

  1. Banjo Says:

    It’s odd, but Henry James’s reputation in the US probably reached its apex in the 1990s when his novels became Hollywood fodder. Up until that point he was often castigated as abstruse and, worse, anglophilic. His 1907 non-fiction work The American Scene was roundly condemned when it appeared as the hauteur of someone who’d lost touch with his native country.

    In terms of fin-de-siecle realists, I’d go with Theodore Dreiser– though many would shunt him into the Naturalist corner with Frank Norris and Stephen Crane– or possibly Edith Wharton. Her first novel, House of Mirth, artfully illustrates and indicts the suffocating conventionality of her class, the Four Hundred.

    Very perceptive review, and a pleasure to read.


  2. adammcnestrie Says:

    Wharton is a wonderful novelist. Dreiser I am yet to read. Trilling castigated him as an almost nihilistic materialist and it has been enough to put me off so far.

  3. Banjo Says:

    I try to avoid the narcotic of American exceptionalism but in a sense Dreiser is more characteristically American than either James of Wharton. 2nd generation immigrant, bi-lingual, came up the hard way as a journalist, etc. Trilling didn’t like D. b/c the latter joined the communist party the year of his death. With Trilling, as with so many intellectuals of his generation, anti-communism trumped aesthetics. Have your ever read Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds? In my opinion one of the great synthetic histories of American letters. Right up there with Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought or Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.
    I’m greatly enjoying your blog, Adam. Keep up the good work.

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