Friday, May 17, 2013

"The Figure in the Carpet" - they missed my little point with a perfection

Now it is time for the reverse, the Wuthering Expectations signature move, when I argue that the stylistic irritations I have been whining about are in fact necessary for the writer’s ingenious artistic purpose.  Which is pretty obvious in the case of Henry James, although it has taken me a while to see it.

And I am not entirely wrong.  In a weaker James story, the indirection and vagueness can cause the text to crumble in my hands as I read it.  Some Chekhovian or Flaubertish eggs would help stiffen the batter.  My baking metaphor may have some problems.  Never mind that.

“The Figure in the Carpet”  (1896) would be ruined by more detail or closure.  It is about vagueness, the meaning and purpose of a lack of definition in fiction.

A novelist tells a literary critic, the story’s narrator, that the critic has not understood his novels, as have all critics, as has everyone, “they missed my little point with a perfection exactly as admirable when they patted me on the back as when they kicked me in the shins” (578).  The critic, conceited and intrigued, badgers the novelist into revealing a series of clues about his ”exquisite scheme”:  it is “the loveliest thing in the world,” as “palpable as the marble of this chimney,” but not at all an “esoteric message”:

“My whole lucid effort gives him [the reader] the clue – every page and line and letter.  The thing’s as concrete there as a bird in a cage, a bait on a hook, a piece of cheese in a mouse-trap.  It’s stuck into every volume as your foot is stuck into your shoe.  It governs every line, it chooses every word, it dots every i, it places every comma.” (581)

The critics takes this as a challenge but after ransacking the novels gives it up as a waste of time: “The buried treasure was a bad joke, the general intention a monstrous pose” (583).  But his friend and editor, a magazine writer takes up the challenge and in a moment of mystical inspiration while on a trip to India solves the mystery:  “The figure in the carpet came out.”  On his return to England, he visits the novelist who confirms his discovery, and also reveals the secret to his new wife, herself a novelist.

The poor sap of a critic never learns what it is, though.  In a strange series of events, the magazine writer is killed and the novelist also dies.  The wife refuses to divulge the answer (“It’s my life!”), unless she covertly does so in her novel Overmastered.  Then she dies, but not before marrying a second critic, now the last chance for our narrator.  But it turns out that this poor sap was never told a word about the secret, and ends the story in a state of agitation and dismay.

So, just to be clear about how perverse this allegory of reading and interpretation is, there are five characters, all writers.  The three who are not literary critics are able to see the marvelous figure in the carpet; the two who are critics are mystified.  The story appears to be an irresistible trap for critics.  It begs the reader to solve its puzzle.  Peculiar details of plot and speech are emphasized in such a way that they must be clues.  At the same time, the nature and function of the trap could not be more evident.  And the two baffled critics are alive at the end of the story, while the happily enlightened are not.

Next I will work through how what I think of as James’s weaknesses are in fact necessary to create the Borgesian effect of “The Figure in the Carpet.”


  1. I think that lack of disclosure could be maddening especially if a reader is unprepared to try and understand why the writer is being evasive.

    Sounds as if The Figure in the Carpet has a lot to say about criticism and art. based upon your description it also sounds as if it is a perfect example of what you are talking about. I may give this one a try soon.

    I find that if you use too many Chekhovian eggs a spongy result.

  2.  I can see him there still, on my rug, in the firelight and his spotted jacket, his fine clear face all bright with the desire to be tender to my youth. 


    What I contend that nobody has ever mentioned in my work is the organ of life.

    Which one? Quite! I don’t wish to know that, kindly leave the stage.

    There is quite a bout of touchy feely in that scene, more than is appropriate for the 19th. C, even for the late 19th.C you know. You have a carpet, I have a rug let’s call the whole thing off.

    Thanks for sending me to this story.

  3. "Maddening" - sometimes, yes. A good maddening in the end but a struggle along the way.

    Anyway, yes, a surprisingly pure conceptual argument about art.

    ombhurbhuva - I am simultaneously warming to and increasingly dismissive of the Queer Theory approach to James. I mean, just look at those passages you quote! But then again, isn't "The Figure in the Carpet" openly declaring that the whole thing is a trap? Beware, beware!