On “The Golden Bowl”

by vinnyhaddad


The Golden Bowl wields tremendous narratorial prowess, a clinic of focalization and misdirection. The sentiment that Denis Donoghue opens his introduction to the Everyman Library’s edition I think appropriately captures the reading experience of this text: “We never feel, before the end and perhaps not even then, that James has given it to us without reserve and indicated how we are to receive it. We immerse ourselves happily in it, page after page, but we are never allowed to feel sure that we have it right.” The plot offers an overlaying of desires, knowledge gaps, misrecognitions, deceptions, and decorum damage-control, each of which is mitigated by a narrator that hovers, projects, tills but remains amazingly non-moralizing. For Jonathan Flatley, the ambiguity of James’s prose serves as a blankness that, in conjunction with our interpretive tendencies, we project our queer fantasies onto: is this character sexually attracted to her father? is this in the text, in between the lines, invented entirely by me? is James advocating for this or that?[1] The reader has little to go on in their quest to make little stacks of knowledge about characters, plot, theme or locate a logistical center of interpretation. In fact, characters almost entirely lack visual descriptions, and their value is based almost exclusively on the level of interiority.

I think this problem bears out interestingly on the basic level of communication. Considering the conventional use of direct speech acts in 19th century realist novels as representing the characters “linguistic view of the world,” one that can be compared and cross-checked with the authoritative moral compass of the narrator’s linguistic view of the world, the utterance about utterance, The Golden Bowl rather presents an intensely confused overlaying of discourses, where at least one role of the narrator is as a visual corrective for the lack of content or gaps in content of the direct speech acts of the characters. What is interesting here is that the narrator does not serve so much as an editor, transforming the direct speech acts of the characters to fit his own narrative, but committing a mirrored process of reading of the characters to one another, and ours to them. Direct speech acts on their own offer little, but the minor facial movements, intonations, changes in posture all must be read and interpreted, by one character of another character, by the narrator of several characters, and by the reader of some limited totality of language. According to Bakhtin, “language is something that is historically real, a process of heteroglot development, a process teeming with future and former languages, with prim but moribund aristocrat-languages, with parvenu-languages and with countless pretenders to the status of language which are all more or less successful, depending on their degree of social scope and on the ideological area in which they are employed.” The Golden Bowl presents several characters, and an author no less (which is a key figure in Bakhtin’s formulation), whose linguistic practices are informed spatially (the Prince is an Italian emigrant, the Ververs and Charlotte are American), socio-economically and aristocratically (the Ververs control the wealth, yet they require the social brilliance and connections of the Prince and even Charlotte. One might then expect that a hierarchical territorialization of these linguistic practices would fall along these categories, but power, particularly the linguistic power endemic to heteroglossia, is not constructed by these organizing principles alone. The formal aesthetic practice that Henry James utilizes in The Golden Bowl instead functions on a primarily epistemological axis, what characters know, how they know it, to whom and how they choose to reveal that knowledge, and ultimately how the reader figures along those lines.

In this vein, Mark McGurl, in his book The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James, offers a compelling argument in which he draws connections between these modes of interpretation among and between characters and the social situation of the novel itself that James is responding to.[2] McGurl’s account of Henry James follows a Foucauldian/Bourdieu philosophical axis, following the novel’s competing discourses of power and cultural capital and the complex structuring of readers and non-readers that these discourses organize. As McGurl points out, “When The Golden Bowl was published, the idea of the novel’s potential as ‘high art’ was not exactly new, but neither could it be taken for granted, and this had everything to do with how the genre’s audience was conceived” (34).

“The ‘collective edition’ had been conceived as early as 1904, around the time of the completion of The Golden Bowl, and like this novel, though on a much larger scale, it would be intended by James as the creation of a sort of masterpiece. Revised to reflect his latest refinements of style, and supplied with the now-famous prefaces, the volumes in this edition would, James hoped, appear in the form of what he called ‘Handsome Books’—beautiful, high-quality objects. The New York Edition would be James’s artfully reconstructed version of his career as an artist, an ideality manifest materially as a set of handsome and durable things…Alas, by this point, the wide audience that James had begun to lose in the late 1880s could not be lured back to him with, and the laboriously prepared edition was a miserable commercial failure” (McGurl 36).

McGurl, I think, figures this discussion of the book as object into both the thematic and formal practices of The Golden Bowl quite persuasively. McGurl juxtaposes the frontispieces that James and the photographer A.L. Coburn develop for his texts while walking through London. The intrusion of pictures into books, into novels, the very things that so artfully “bristle with immediate images,” represented for James the intrusion of a “new homogenous ‘multitude,’ the ‘total swarm’ now able to ‘possess itself in one way or another of the book.’ James’s [conceived] of the novel, the dominant book genre in mass print culture, as a genre dominated, held hostage to a mass readership for whom ‘taste is but a confused immediate instinct’” (McGurl, 37). James’s frontispieces offer an interesting commentary on this lamentation by offering, not visual representations of characters, but of shut doors.

Frontispiece for 1909 edition of “The Golden Bowl”

McGurl argues that the partition between insider/outsider, of those allowed to enter and those that cannot, of those who understand and those who do not, of those who put the work in to understand a “real” novel and the rest of mass readership, is embodied by these frontispieces and carried out by the epistemological nature of his aesthetic practices. This is what, for McGurl, figures Henry James as the progenitor of the aesthetically difficult, perhaps misinterpreted as “prototypical,” modernist novel that James himself would not likely recognize (Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood for example).

[1] Flatley, Jonathan. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

[2] McGurl, Mark. The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. Print.