Friday, July 14, 2017

Characters in The Golden Bowl discuss The Golden Bowl - very helpful

The heroine of The Golden Bowl enacts the style of the novel in her story, which is a good trick, but Henry James has a second one nearly as good.  He adds, to the quartet at the center of the book, an outside observer couple, Fanny and Bob Assingham.  Fanny is both tangled in the story and an outsider; Bob merely watches.  The couples are given long scenes in which they discuss the novel.

I mean, they discuss the characters, who are their friends.  But they have enough distance, Bob especially, that they sound little different than if they were discussing the novel.  It is as if they are reading The Golden Bowl together, perhaps aloud to each other before bed, and then talking over the events of the last chapter.  Fanny is, honestly, a better, more attentive reader of James, but Bob is a different kind of reader, so they do well together.

Chapters 3.10 and 3.11 are the clearest place to see this effect – this is the pre-bedtime scene.  The chapters end the longish first “half” of the novel, dead center in the book, before Maggie’s detailed interiority takes over.  The Assinghams sum up the first 270 pages with some efficiency, work through the relevant issues, and speculate on what will happen in the next 270.

The main reason The Golden Bowl did not seem especially difficult to me was that James frequently follows substantial passages of meticulous ambiguity and obscurity with much more clear explanations, often in dialogue, of the novel’s events.  He catches me right up with what I missed, and confirms what I caught.

Fanny, in the reality of the novel, is the confidante of a number of characters, so she is a privileged position, always knowing things that other characters do not.  In other words, she is in the position that I, the reader, am in.  But Bob is even more like me.  These people are less real to him than they are to his wife.

The Colonel took it in. “Then she’s a little heroine.”

That sort of thing.

Martha Nussbaum has two essays on The Golden Bowl in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990).  One is on the moral seriousness of Maggie Verver’s struggle – on the moral seriousness of the novel as such – while the second is in large part about the Assinghams.  Nussbaum makes one error when she describes them as “perform[ing] the function, more or less, of a Greek tragic chorus” – less, definitely less.  They are novel readers.

Bob is the non-Jamesian, “a man devoted to rules and to general conceptions” and has trouble with “nuance and idiosyncrasy” (157-8).  His wife chose this novel for their bedtime reading.  Bob, when it is his turn, will pick the Galsworthy novel I am currently reading.  “Fanny, on the other hand, takes fine-tuned perception to a dangerously rootless extreme.”  She is too Jamesian.  “She delights in the complexity of these particulars for its own sake, without sufficiently feeling the pull of a moral obligation to any” (158).  After they discuss the book, they both understand it better.  Discuss their friends, understand them.  They complement each other.  Their scenes are arguments for the value of talking about books.


  1. This is a persuasive reading of the Assingham chapters, which can otherwise seem incongruous, throwbacks to one of those earlier dialogue-heavy books like The Awkward Age.

  2. They certainly need some explanation. They are not necessary for the story as such. Although in this book, that is not such a useful standard.