The Golden Bowl, by Henry James

by Robert A. Parker

I have been a great fan of Henry James. But for some reason I did not get around to reading The Golden Bowl, written in 1904. Perhaps because I had heard that it was in James’ later style, and was a difficult book.

In any event, I tried reading the novel a few years ago, and could not get past the first 50 pages. They were too dense, and seemed to be going nowhere.

So now, I am trying again. I am up to page 200, and it is difficult going. I am not sure right now if I am going to finish the novel, or give up. I certainly had the same difficulty in reading the first 50 pages. We begin inside the Prince’s head before he marries Maggie, and every sentence seems to have many clauses with multi qualifiers, as James has his hero consider all the possible effects of a particular thought or action. Plus, nothing seems to be happening.

When, finally, the characters begin talking to each other, we leave what has been exposition and interest begins with the interaction of these characters. Finally, the narrative is being dramatized. I have not read or seen any of Henry James’ plays, but I know he turned to playwriting late in his career. I would surmise this was because he liked writing dialogue, and perhaps realized he was good at it. I do know I myself enjoyed his dialogue in his earlier novels.

James follows these interesting dialogues, however, with long pages of more exposition, with some paragraphs lasting more than a page. He does this, I believe, because he has developed a rich knowledge of the contradictions of the mind and of human emotions, and he imparts these contradictions to his characters in order to establish a lifelike richness to his characterizations.

But what he does not realize is that the richness of these contradictions comes between him and his reader, and instead of the dramatic action we seek from his characters we endure endless introspection. His purpose may be admirable: to establish a rich lifelike context, whether of the atmosphere, a person’s thinking, or the ramifications of an action. But in truth, I have found myself skimming over those long paragraphs that freeze the action so that James can probe the complex thinking of these characters—long paragraphs that advance possibilities, but do not advance the story.

The story itself is about two couples. Maggie has married Amerigo, the Prince. Charlotte has married Maggie’s father, Adam Verver. Maggie and Charlotte are longtime girl friends. Charlotte and the Prince were once (this is the 19th century) lovers. Complications ensue among these basically good people. The complications are exasperated by the gossipy Fanny Assingham, who keeps confiding to the reader the ramifications of these relationships, as we listen to her and her husband, Bob, the Colonel.

As we move from Book First, the Prince’s view, to Book Second, the Princesses’ (Maggie’s) view, we learn through Mrs. Assingham the issue that this novel addresses. It is that Maggie has remained close to her father, and is thus withholding her attention from her husband. This appears to result in the Prince renewing his emotional tie to Charlotte, who, in turn, finds herself less attached to her husband, because of Maggies’ caring love of him, her father.

So the issue becomes twofold. Will Maggie realize the reason for the renewed relationship between her husband, the Prince, and Charlotte, and will she trust them? And will her father, Adam Verver, realize that his wife Charlotte is giving her attention to the Prince rather than to him? Finally, how will Maggie and her father react if they discover that her love for her father has reopened that former relationship?

The answers have drawn me into the second half of the novel.

What is initially disappointing is that the first 90 pages of the second half employ what I am calling exposition, which means a narrative of Maggie’s thinking rather than a dramatization of what she is thinking and doing. This raises the question of why James has taken this approach. Yes, it saves space, saves pages, but I think it is because James has so much knowledge of how the mind works that he wants to show its nuances, and thinks that to explore and reveal actions through the mind is the best way to establish the reality of his characters. Whereas, I prefer to reveal character through action, including conversation—rather than through what I would term a more static approach, through the depths of the mind.

Another source of this approach I hesitate to introduce. It is that this is James’ last novel, and that perhaps, perhaps, he has found it difficult to find the concentration to turn a somewhat conceptual concept, his plot, into dramatic action. That he outlined where he wanted the story to go but found it required considerable effort to dramatize where he wanted it to go. And he soon turned to playwriting precisely because he was comfortable with dialogue, and a play does not have the complexity of a novel.

What also may be behind my reaction is that I have not been able to follow the complexity of Maggie’s thinking, or of the Prince’s thinking. There may well be much more to these internal musings than I am aware of, and this master should receive full credit for that subtle treatment. However, given my inability to follow some of these musing has been one reason, I admit, that I have skimmed through those long paragraphs of little action.

On the other hand, there is also the issue of the actual musings of these characters, especially those of Maggie. They are of minor significance in the external lives of these characters. Maggie’s suspicions of the faithfulness of her husband and her best friend arise in her imagination; and her speculations lead to no external action until the end, and then it might be better described as inaction. The subtlety behind her thinking is that she does not wish her father to know her suspicions, for fear it will destroy his marriage, his happiness, as well as her own relationships with both him and her own husband. Thus, she achieves as much as she can by inaction.

What I will grant, however, is that as inconsequential as Maggie’s suspicions are, James knows how to write a scene in which she confronts, first, Fanny Assingham, and then her husband, the Prince, with her suspicions. This may well be the scene that James saw as the turning point of this novel.

The golden bowl of the title also plays a role here, and a very appropriate one. Indeed, it is a symbol of Maggie’s relationship with her father and with Charlotte. For it has a crack. And Fanny Assingham plays a major role in its fate. For Maggie, the issue is why, earlier in the novel, Charlotte was prepared to buy the bowl for the Prince. And the issue for me now is the logic behind how Maggie learns of that earlier encounter in the antique shop, and how she twists it into meaning something significant to her.

Otherwise, this confrontational scene with the vase reminded me of the old, the earlier James, whom I so admired. For it is marvelous dialogue, and truly works as a symbol of Maggie’s psychological fragility.

In passing, I would note that most of the book’s earlier confrontations in dialogue form concern the Assinghams, either between themselves or hers with Maggie; and they clearly exist to explain to the reader the ramifications that so concern Maggie.

The ending begins with final confrontation scenes, in dialogue, between Maggie and Charlotte and then Maggie and her father. It seemed to me to be a perfect ending, with Maggie resolving her situation with each of these people who are important to her. But then we read more than 25 pages of narrative exposition before we get to two more conversations, one again between Maggie and Charlotte that bring a change in all the relationships. It seems to me that James wanted here to give his novel a new twist at the end, but for me it was far from necessary, much less in any way significantly revealing of Maggie. For James, perhaps, it brought a greater sense of completion. On the other hand, I am thinking here of the overall situation, whereas James may have decided that it important that his hero Maggie change from being a person who only reacts to others to one who herself acts on others.

However, I do have to admire the sure, confident technique of the final pages‑—its resolution of the relationship between Maggie and her father and Maggie and her husband. Which, I think, is intended to represent the completeness of Maggie’s portrait. For James keeps us uncertain until these final pages. And even then, those final relationships are elusive to this reader. Yes, Maggie has maneuvered them as she wished, but they have also taken their own initiative in reaching the same conclusion. Indeed, both the Prince and Charlotte agree, in effect, to give up each other. Thus, there is goodness in each of these four characters who have, for various reasons, put themselves into this difficult situation. And for Maggie, what matters is her decision that her loyalty be, first, with her husband, whereas previously it has been with her father.

And yet, it is such a slight obstacle that this novel has resolved. An obstacle that Maggie initially creates in her mind. That is, her view of the relationships among these two couples. Which becomes a greater obstacle when it transforms itself into the tension between her love of her father and her love of her husband. However…it is still an obstacle that lies within their three minds. It does not exist in their external world. Which, in turn, shows us what interested James in this stage of his career: the internal world.

In an introduction, Richard Brett has offered some interesting ideas. He asks: “What is the point of this slight, breathlessly refined action? How does it come to seem both trivial and profound?”

And: “The people are characteristically concerned with the questions of where they are, what do they know, what do others know, what can be said, what can’t be said, what can others say or not say, do or not do” And this certainly captures the narrative exposition that continually turned me off.

He also suggests that the wealthy Maggie wishing to buy a prince for his social ranking and to “buy” Charlotte for her lonely father “may well seem a guiltier thing than the adultery committed against them and which, in any event, they have themselves provoked by the logic of their bargains.”

He continues: “James point, perhaps first, is that no matter what the original appearance of the morality of the Ververs’ bargains, all four characters are mutually implicated in them; all give and all take; and further all are transformed by their interconnectedness.”

In the end, this is a story of love. Of Maggie’s for her father, and of Maggie’s for her husband. Not to forget that between the Prince and Charlotte. Indeed, Maggie realizes, for them all, that giving up one love can be a commitment of love to another. And Brett asks “But how else is love to be conceived…if it is not the allowance to others of as much freedom as one assumes for oneself.”

So what I am evaluating is the effectiveness of this portrayal of love requiring a sacrifice, when that sacrifice is explored too much within the characters’ minds rather than in any external action. Yes, these characters, and most of James’ characters, live through their consciousness more than through their body; but there was too much of that consciousness here for my taste. There was too much subtlety, too much goodness, in the actions of these characters; too much speculating that if I do this to achieve my good end, he or she will do that to achieve their good end.

In sum, this was a novel to struggle through. In part because of its complex style. In part because of its narrative rather than dramatic approach. And in part because the drama is inside these characters rather than, as in most novels, in the physical world. James was obviously drawn here to that internal world, much as Joyce was when he used another format. Perhaps that new knowledge of the mind was an avenue novelists wished to explore at the turn of the 20th century. However, I also wonder whether or not James himself was dissatisfied with this novel. And wonder if that influenced his turning thereafter to the stage. (July, 2014)

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