Thursday, July 13, 2017

"They thought of everything but that I might think." - The Golden Bowl on how to read The Golden Bowl

The Golden Bowl is a quartet novel, with two couples and an adulterous affair.  The second turn of the screw is that the wife and husband of the adulterers are father and daughter, and are unusually close.  The daughter, Maggie Verver, marries an Italian prince, Amerigo, and it is not that the marriage is a failure but that even after her marriage she never separates herself from her father.  To help her have her own life, her father, Adam, marries a young beauty, Charlotte.  But Charlotte, unknown to the Ververs, used to be Amerigo’s girlfriend!  This could lead to trouble.  A little melodrama, even.  Well, some parody of melodrama.

I suppose the novel is largely about Maggie’s moral growth.  She is not just innocent, but possibly even too good, too unwilling to cause pain to anyone.  She learns to cause pain.

Maggie is given much of the second half of the novel.  Her story gets moving when she discovers the affair, or thinks she does.

‘It’s your nature to think too much,’ Fanny Assingham a trifle coarsely risked.

This but quickened however in the Princess the act she reprobated.  ‘That may be.  But if I hadn’t thought -!’

‘You wouldn’t, you mean, have been where you are?’

‘Yes, because they on their side thought of everything but that.  They thought of everything but that I might think.’  (6.1)

Maggie’s thought is that of not just a Henry James character but a Henry James reader.  Hey, look, I have gotten to my point.  Maggie discovers her husband’s and stepmother’s affair, or at least its possibility, not through eavesdropping or a stray letter or some other melodramatic contrivance, but through close observation and analysis of the people around her.  “It fell for retrospect into a succession of moments that were watchable still,” “the fruit, positively, of recognitions and perceptions already active” (stitching together two distant lines of 4.1).  The long section describing Maggie’s process of observing and thinking, the beginning of her half of the novel, is packed with lines that I would like to use here:

The great decorated surface had remained consistently impenetrable and inscrutable.  At present however, to her considering mind, it was as if she had ceased merely to circle and to scan the elevation, ceased so vaguely, so quite helplessly to stare and wonder: she had caught herself distinctly in the act of pausing, then in that of lingering, and finally in that of stepping unprecedentedly near.  (again, 4.1)

That is practically an instruction for the baffled reader of The Golden Bowl.  Maggie is modeling the process of reading a late Henry James novel.  Every little nuance in the faces and tones of the people around her is a source of discovery.  The true stories can be understood by observing the absence of evidence – silences are more important than speech, the avoided glance more important than the meeting of the eyes.

The other way that Maggie becomes like James, and like a good Jamesian reader, is that she thinks metaphorically.  The “situation” was “the very centre of the garden of her life,” or like “some strange tall tower of ivory, or perhaps rather some wonderful beautiful but outlandish pagoda,” or “a Mahometan mosque.”  She is always coming up with new ones, while developing the old ones.  Maggie “tried to deal with herself for a space only as a silken-coated spaniel.” The spaniel has a “generalizing bark,” which is amusing.  Her stepmother is in a cage, or perhaps in a French prison during the Terror – James has returned to the metaphor that so puzzled me in The Wings of the Dove.

Since all of this is, for a long chunk of the novel, internal, all thought, there is the possibility that Maggie – or the reader – is completely wrong about what is going on, or who knows what is going on, or who knows what other people know about what is going on – the second half of the novel is recursive.  This is not exactly the story James tells, but it is implicit, ready for Ford Madox Ford to write it in The Good Soldier.

Maggie’s “discovery” section is just about the ideal fit between James’s late style and the matter it represents.


  1. I am assuming that you will address Maggie's final trip around the table near the end of the novel, one of the most devastating revelations in all of James, to rival Strether's epiphany in The Ambassadors and Densher's actions near the end of Wings of the Dove. And Fanny Assignham climbs the stairs...

  2. I don't know - the card table scene, right? Almost perfectly static. Except in Maggie's thoughts.

    Strether's scene is demonstrative, garishly colored, compared to what James does here. I think the word "subtle" is overused with James, but there is no other word for how Maggie's thoughts are developed at such length.

  3. But she KNOWS. EVERYTHING. James's skill at conveying the depth of Maggie's and Strether's thoughts makes me feel like a piker--my skills of observation and analysis wouldn't qualify me as a third-tier character in a James novel.

  4. Yes, what do I do if I'm a person on whom much is lost? Which is what I am.