Henry James, Selected Tales (1879-1908)

It took me TWO YEARS to finish this book.  All went fairly well at first, but at some point around two thirds of the way through, my bookmark got stuck.  No matter how much I read, it never seemed to move any further … until, one day, it was over.

Henry James is divisive: people seem to either love or hate him. His style is notoriously convoluted and wordy, and on the surface his stories often appear to be about nothing in particular – things that never happened, relationships that didn’t transpire and secrets that are never revealed. Despite these issues and the length of time it took me to read this book, I still place myself more on the love end of the continuum.  I’ve also read The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, The Turn of the Screw and some of this other ‘ghost’ stories.

The tales in this collection follow a chronological order from 1879 – 1908 and they do get more opaque as they go, but read together I think they give you a better sense of what Henry James is all about.  “Nothing” happens in his stories because he’s mainly concerned with psychological states, with the ways in which our lives can be dominated by that which never happened, that which remains secret, and by ideas, hopes and dreams rather than reality.  In ‘The Lesson of the Master’, for instance, a young writer allows his life to be ruled by the hope that he will learn something important from an older writer, only to learn a very different lesson to the one he had hoped for.  ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ has a similar theme. In ‘The Best in the Jungle’, a man’s entire life is thwarted by his feeling that one day ‘something’ important is going to happen, so he lives in a perpetual state of anticipation and loses everything as a result.

James is very interested in the dangers of interpretation, particularly of interpreting signs wrongly. In ‘Daisy Miller’ a young woman dies because the people around her read her behaviour wrongly; she does nothing, but that doesn’t matter because it’s interpretation that matters in James’s world. The same theme appears in the late story ‘Julia Bride’, in which another young woman’s life path is decided by the way people read her behaviour and speak about what they think they see. James is also very aware of the sexual double-standard in his stories about women.

It is not only action that has far-reaching consequences in James; it is thought and speech.  In ‘The Pupil’, a tutor plays with the feelings of his young pupil without any real thought as to the effect he may be having on the boy, until it is too late. The boy, meanwhile, has committed two classic Jamesian errors: reading too much into the signs and placing all his hope in one person who isn’t really what he seems. James is just as interested in the consequences of non-action – how what we don’t do affects other people.  What guilt does the narrator of Daisy Miller bear for just watching events unfold and not standing up for her when he could?  Is John Marcher responsible for the death of May Bertram, the woman who loved him all the years while he waited for “something” to happen?

It is not surprising that so many of the tales are uncanny psychological ‘ghost’ stories since James is so interested in the ways in which the repressed makes itself felt in our lives as a kind of ‘haunting’.  The late story, ‘The Jolly Corner’, brings these themes together in a man who is haunted by the ghost of his alternative life, the life he might have lived had he made different choices. He becomes obsessed with this ‘ghost’ and desperate to meet it, but when he does, the alien identity he encounters horrifies him and he finally begins to appreciate his life for what it is and live in the present.

The introduction by John Lyon is annoying – almost as convoluted in style as James and rather “harrumph harrumph, how dare these so-called queer theorists read homosexual meaning into these stories, harrumph.”  It’s actually pretty hard not to read homosexual meaning into James when his stories are so full of the unsayable, of the consequences of living with secrets, and of course, of relationships between men. I’m firmly on Eve Sedgwick’s side in thinking that James has something particularly interesting to say about ‘the closet’.

Worth reading if you’re interested in James, late nineteenth-century literature, or if you want to see what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was talking about in Epistemology of the Closet.

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2 thoughts on “Henry James, Selected Tales (1879-1908)

  1. I love James, but he’s such a sacred cow. I think there’s a bit of the mind/body split being applied to James’ work, as if, because his work is so psychological, that precludes it from having any sexual or queer element. Not to mention, it’s so demeaning and insulting to suggest there’s anything queer about James or his work! [/academic institutionalized homophobia] He does seem to attract a specific kind of academic fanboy—wonder what James conventions are like? Probably as bad as the Thomas Hardy ones!

  2. Oh yes, I definitely think James attracts a certain kind of male academic fanboy. Because he can be quite hard to read, they probably think that means being a James critic makes you super-smart.

    Aside from the question of James’s own queerness, I think it’s really interesting that these academics react so badly to any suggestion that he might have been writing about homosexuality when James lived at a time when homosexuality was a huge issue and very much in public eye, especially in the kind of upper-class and literary circles in which he moved. Oscar Wilde trials anyone? Is it really so unreasonable to suggest that he might have addressed one of the big issues of his time in his writing??? I don’t think it would be so unreasonable if the issue wasn’t homosexuality.

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