Tuesday, May 14, 2013

She has depths and depths, and all of them bad - interpreting Henry James

In a fortuitous coincidence, D. G. Myers just wrote a piece about stories with “onlooker narrators,” like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, a “secondary character who also participates in events.”  I have just read three Henry James stories in a row that feature clever variations on the device.  Myers suggests I look at What Maisie Knew (1897) as well, which I will do once I read it.  Now I will keep things simple.  No, one of the stories is “The Figure in the Carpet” (1896).  There is no way to keep that one simple.

The literary critic in “The Figure in the Carpet” is at first an active character but recedes into the onlooker role for most of the story.  The tutor in “The Pupil” (1892) is placed in what should be the position of an onlooker, but his seemingly peripheral story turns out to be the meaningful one.  The cold Jamesian fish who narrates “Louisa Pallant” (1888) is the purest onlooker of the three, except James creates the possibility that his role is something else, even if he does not realize it.

I want to start with the one that is least famous, “Louisa Pallant,” because it is the easiest to deal with.  The narrator meets his old flame, Louisa, at a European spa.  She jilted him long ago (“She had not treated me well and we had never really made it up,” 193).  Now Louisa has an appealing daughter and the narrator has a rich nephew who coincidentally joins them at the spa.

The romance between the youngsters is inevitable.  The mother eventually breaks it up by telling the nephew something about her daughter so terrible that he immediately flees her.  The narrator never learns what was said, from Louisa or from his nephew.  This is where the “onlooker” device is important.  He never learns what was said so neither do I.

Everything he and I learn comes from his conversations with the mother.  Some samples:

‘Do you really mean she is bad?’ I added.

Mrs. Pallant made no immediate answer to this…  (213)

We were silent a moment, after which I resumed:  ‘Then she doesn’t know you hate her?’

‘I don’t know what she knows.  She has depths and depths, and all of them bad.  Besides, I don’t hate her in the least, I pity her simply, for what I have made of her.  But I pity still more the man who may find himself married to her.’  (218)

I am emphasizing the word “bad” because I can only guess what it means – character, presumably, but also behavior?  Who knows.  Whatever the mother tells the nephew is enough to run him off without looking back.

The motive of the mother is an open question.  The truth about the daughter’s character is open, given the various possible motives.  The narrator’s interpretation of the mother’s motive is open – does he think the same thing I do?

We sat there some time longer, while I thought over what she had said to me and she apparently did the same.  I confess that even close to her side, with the echo of her passionate, broken voice still in the air, some queer ideas came into my head.  Was the comedy on her side and not on the girl’s, and was she posturing as a magnanimous woman at poor Linda’s expense?  (218)

For example, is the mother pursuing greater riches, or a title for her daughter?  Is she revenging herself on the narrator for past crimes – or expiating her own sins?

I hardly expect answers to all of these questions.  What is surprising about James is that he does not answer any of them, that he is able to keep a series of incompatible interpretations alive at the end of the story.  The plot does not close off readings but rather causes them to branch.  You probably knew this about James already.  I did not, not until I saw it in this minor story.

Page numbers refer to Complete Stories: 1884-1891, Library of America.


  1. Though I never thought about it before, Te onlooker narrator is indeed a very creative and I think dramatically effective device. I am now searching through my mental archives for examples in the works that I have read over the years.

  2. It's a great device. Many of my favorite books use it. Pale Fire, where the narrator refuses to be an onlooker. The Good Soldier, where the narrator refuses to see what is in front of him (and then does (or perhaps does not)).

    The author can play with any variation of unreliability, although there is no need for the onlooker to be anything but a straight arrow. The gaps in the story are created "naturally," so to speak.

    It lends itself to ingenuity and puzzle-solving, and perhaps less to profound meditations on the meaning of blah blah blah.

  3. My take when I first read Louisa Pallant was that Linda was the onlooker's daughter and Linda's mother was lying or exaggerating about Linda being bad to prevent an incestuous union from taking place, while concealing the onlooker's paternity.

    Of course there are a lot of other possible readings as you point out.

  4. I can think of a few onlooker narratives, and they are all early 20th century. "Le Grand Meaulnes", "Lord Jim", and the "The Razor's Edge". In the "The Razor's Edge" (by Somerset Maugham), the narrator is the author, Maugham himself. I also suppose that it is no coincidence that Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford were collaborators and friends (of sorts).

  5. That's funny, Myers and I were just chatting (via Twitter) about Le Grand Meaulnes, in a discussion about Gatsby. Yes, good one, and how did I forget Lord Jim, I just read it. Well, nine months ago. I guess that is long enough to forget.

    Maugham I unfortunately barely know. Very interesting.

    humblehappiness - yes, perfect, perfect. Entirely plausible. Not contradicted in the text, but never - not confirmed, that is the wrong word - never given anything close to enough textual support for a convincing argument. The lack of contradiction almost becomes the argument. Aargh! This is not how Nabokov works - which I believe moves me to the comments on the next post.