I was as game as anyone. A secret thread runs through the novelist’s work; the critic fails to uncover it; another writer succeeds. Maybe I can succeed, too. Maybe the clues to the meaning of the fictional novelist’s imaginary texts are ingeniously concealed within the actual text of “The Figure in the Carpet.”
For example, maybe the novelist’s secret is that he is homosexual. Anyone ever tried that one? Or am I the first to suggest it?
A couple of other possibilities: the novelist was lying (or drunk) when he suggested that his books revealed a plain-sight “figure in the carpet” if only anyone would see it. Perhaps the novelist is kissing up to the critic (and, later, the editor of a literary magazine). Or perhaps he is teasing them, playing a prank.
Another possible hidden story: the editor, when he claims to have found the solution to the novelistic puzzle, is actually lying in order to trick a woman into marrying him. He succeeds – she marries him in order to learn the secret. This may sound absurd, but I am having trouble with some recurring fuss over exactly when the characters become engaged to marry, e.g. “I subsequently grew sure that at the time he went to India, at the time of his great news from Bombay, there was no engagement whatever” (598). This must mean something; it must be part of an interpretation of the story, this attention to what looks like a peripheral question.
The clue that convinced me that I was getting “The Figure in the Carpet” more or less right was actually an absence, a dog that did not bark, so to speak. It would be possible to make a long list of characteristics of the “figure,” most of them straight from the novelist. But nowhere does the critic who narrates the story give a hint of what might be in the novelist’s texts. Neither description nor scene nor a single line, not even a title. No, there is one title, The Right of Way, but the title is of the novelist’s last book, released after the critic has given up on seeing the figure, after the editor claims to have seen it.
A joke, it is all just a joke, even before we get to the absurd over-reactions of the characters who do see the figure. I mean, I myself have seen such figures in the carpets of other writers. It is not such a big deal.
James has created a radically uninterpretable story. Thus the necessity of the vagueness and even absence of what should be essential detail; thus the details that are included pointing towards alternative, unresolvable, stories. Vladimir Nabokov, when writing a parable of the difficulties of literary interpretation, has to write an entire 999 line poem to make his case. In the James story, characters insist that they are reading with a Kinbotean intensity, but it is all concealed from the actual reader – of course it never exists.
At three o’clock in the morning, not sleeping, remembering moreover how indispensable he [the novelist] was to Lady Jane, I stole down to the library with a candle. There wasn’t, so far as I could discover, a line of his writing in the house. (583)
Now there, that turns out to be a clue.