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ISSN: 0974-892X

January, 2009



Seema Parashar

The Marginal Sections of Society in the Fiction of Henry James

Henry James is one of the most distinguished American writers. He gained popularity for his long exploration and vivid depiction of inner life of his characters.  When Henry James started his career as a writer, The New World (America) was not even 100 years old. Though most of Jamesian characters hail from the high societies of America and Europe, he has, at times, depicted the low middle class section of both the societies of his time.  In James’ fiction the typical high class European was not just wealthy, but came from “old money”--the money from landed titles with ties to royalty. Most rich Americans made their money in industry. They were from new money which meant not just that the money had been recently made but made through work and not inheritance. Though the country was growing economically due to industrialisation, there was not much improvement in the condition of the women of that time despite the efforts of some feminist groups of women working actively across the country. Women were still considered the less important of the two sexes and treated as marginal or secondary to their male counterparts. As women are supposed to be more complex than their males, the creative mind of James got more inclined towards the portrayal of female characters.

By 1870, major figures such as Edgar Ellen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau had died, and romanticism and transcendentalism had largely given way to a different literary movement, which came to be known as realism. This was the time when the other contemporary realist writers such as Mark Twain, William Dean Howells and Herman Melville, were not so keen on drawing the true portraitures of women in their works. But James always felt a kind of kinship with the women and could thus share their different concerns and emotions, which is mandatory for a writer concentrating mainly on the female characters. Women were hugely important to Henry James, both in his vividly drawn female characters and in his relationships with female relatives and friends.

Henry James had special relations with three women in his life –all  of whom died untimely. The first one was his cousin Mary Temple,called  Minnie, who died of tuberculosis in 1870 at the age of twenty-four. James witnessed his own sister Alice James living a sickly and miserable life before dying of breast cancer. James had a close friendship with writer Constance Fenimore Woolson who committed suicide at the age of fifty three. Their tragedies had a deep impact on the sensitive mind of James. He was disturbed to see how cruel the society was to the women who tried to live their lives in their own ways. People criticised any independent action done by these women. They were supposed to do everything under the influence of the men in their lives—their fathers, brothers or husbands. They were accorded no importance for their own selves.

Henry James's orphaned cousin Mary Temple, had a greater effect on his creative life than any other woman. Minnie’s precociousness, her brashness, her independence of spirit, for which the society criticized her (even James’ own family could never appreciate her), made her highly commendable in the eyes of James. James felt a love for Minnie  that went much beyond the love one feels for a cousin. He became immensely fond of her. It is no surprise that with such strong feelings towards Minnie she would appear time and again in James' women characters. Perhaps Minnie most presents herself in James' characters because she attacked life. If she was reckless, it was a recklessness that excited James. Her unfinished life inspired James to create several beautiful and high spirited but tragic heroines-her incarnations include Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer and Milly Theale. With Minnie Temple as his model, James fixed in the literary imagination the image of a new type of American girl, restless and independent. Minnie was never accepted as one of the sophisticated American girls as Daisy Miller is never considered a respectable person in her society. Through the character of Daisy Miller , James has shown the actual tragedy of a woman “ who wants to live and enjoy her life”. Such a woman ends up in death like Minnie and Daisy. Minnie threw a challenge to the narrow role of women offered by the Victorian Age. Minnie wished to travel, discover and challenge the world around her. This is found in many of James' female characters that women who are independent of their social role remain strong in their personality; like Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer (The Portrait of a Lady). So James has wilfully tried to give a platform to the marginal section of women of his time to come forward for their upliftment.

While he based his early popular female characters like Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer on Minnie Temple ; Fenimore was the origin of his later female characters. Fenimore was also free like Minnie but quite in a different way. She was a very strong and ambitious woman with whom James felt very comfortable sharing his concerns and ambitions as a writer.  Though Fenimore was a free woman and her independence was socially approved, the reason behind this was not the changed attitude of society towards women but her pathetic personal life. With a widowed mother and a broken- down brother, she was considered a needy woman and this helped her in making her career. People thought it her misfortune to prefer to remain single and write to earn a living. . So the people acknowledged her, not as a talented writer but as a poor helpless woman who was worthy of their sympathy. But Fenimore herself took advantage of her situation and dedicated her life to her work. The later heroines of James are the women with stronger minds who know how to manage their actions within the approval of their societies and get the desired results.

Alice James was considered a miserable creature in her own family. Her physical and nervous maladies are heartbreaking to review. In 1868 she suffered a nervous breakdown accompanied by hysteria. By 1878, she grew worse and had threatened suicide.  Her mother's death in January 1882 seemed to improve Alice, who was now needed by her father. His death eleven months later, however, resulted in a relapse. Alice eventually died in London of breast cancer. William James (the eldest of James siblings) treated her pseudo-amorously in their adolescence and then patronizingly once he became a medical expert. Henry was a devoted brother, who wrote to her tenderly, introduced her to his friends in England when possible, found lodgings for her in England, vacationed with her in England and also visited her, and even made over the income of his patrimony to her for life. He was the one who could personally feel her sufferings and frustrations. She needed a partner desperately but was forced to live a single life. Her solitude frustrated her much as it was not difficult for the invalid males of her time to get married. Alice wrote letters, a commonplace book, and a journal. She had kept a thorough diary which even James came to know after her death.  Alice James was an egocentric, observant invalid with fierce willpower and a talent for verbal expression which won her some fame after her death. The character of Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove reminds us of Alice. Like Alice, Milly too knows that she won’t live long but wants to experience true love before dying.  Alice found that compliance with the traditional imperatives of respectable femininity led not to social success and personal happiness, but rather to various forms of dissatisfaction and marginality. Alice James’s lifetime career of hysterical illness can be understood as an obedient response to the expectation that femininity be a kind of sexualised passivity; yet the paradoxical self-assertiveness with which Alice embraced this identity took her beyond social centrality and towards the marginality of chronic invalidism.

When James was writing his novels, the pre-dominant ideal for women was the concept of “true womanhood”, which idealised women as religious, domestic and submissive. This concept of womanhood told women that they should be a symbol, or sign of their father’s or husband’s success, as Isabel Archer is expected to be for her husband. The other ideal for females was that of the American girl, as spirited and intelligent, but essentially pure and innocent, as exemplified by Daisy Miller and Milly Theale. Many of James’ heroines were viewed as signs of these deals, both by the characters around them and the readers. In The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove, the heroines must come to term with the fact that people see them as a sign and then try to manipulate this process, so that they are viewed as they want to be. This conflict illuminates the women’s subjugation to the men and society yet gives them a chance to develop a consciousness of this process and attain some control.

James was interested in the rules that define the feminine, and believed that women in society are tied to the polarities that he examines in his writings . He is sympathetic towards the women , who are usually far more intelligent and complex than the men in their lives as exemplified in The Golden Bowl and The Bostonians. Olive Chancellor is a more intelligent and honourable character than Basil Ransom, but she loses to him in the end, showing James’ belief that society is harder on women. Isabel Archer, a true, intelligent and independent woman, loses her independence and becomes confined by her worthless husband. Still she decides to go back to him. Eugenia (The Europeans), being highly sophisticated, is not accepted by her American relatives which shows the inability and lack of desire in the people to appreciate easily anything new and good in the women. But this is for the sure that James had a greater appreciation for the intelligence, thoughtfulness and determination of women. In his stories, he portrays American women with different viewpoints. While Daisy Miller refuses to submit to any pressures from Mrs. Costello, Isabel’s decision to return to her husband must be seen as indication of her intent to battle within her marriage to gain more equality.

Post Civil War American literature saw a transition from the prominence of romance to the development of realism. Henry James worked on the concept of New Women. The New Women in her demands for education and the right to pursue a career rather than marriage, her rejection of the patriarchal family and life of domesticity, and her demand for political power actively questioned the biological determinism and gender assumptions of the Victorian Era. Jamesian heroines like  Isabel Archer, Verena Tarrant (The Bostonians) and Christina Light (Roderick Hudson) present his idea of New Women at the time when women were considered as an object of exchange across national, cultural and even racial boundaries. Though the critics have their different opinions about Henry James and the Woman Question, James is genuinely concerned with all the social and even the most common personal problems faced by the women of his time. Almost all his novels about women aim at showing the most honest and extreme representation of women’s oppression. Although James agrees that such oppression is inevitable and natural because it is based on the inherent balance of power inscribed in men's and women’s sexuality. The final act of his heroines is revolutionary in itself carrying a message for the historical necessity of women’s emancipation. But as a writer James is definitely interested in articulating and romanticizing the tragic elements in women’s powerlessness.

James’ appreciation of women is quite apparent in the way he has portrayed his different kinds of women. He has celebrated the honesty, consistency and sweet nature of  women in the characters of Catherine Sloper (Washington Square), Fleda Vetch (The Spoils of Poynton), and Nanda Brookenham (The Awkward Age) . But at the same time he has shown the misfortune of such wonderful women when despite their great qualities they are rejected on the ground of being women. Catherine’s father could never actually love her because he wanted a son not a daughter. Nanda’s intelligence and immense knowledge as a young girl made her detestable in the eyes of the man she loved the most. She has to leave her society forever and live a single life. This shows that despite all the talks of women emancipation, people were still old fashioned and categorised women as the marginal section of society. But James has also shown politically committed women such as Oliver Chancellor in The Bostonians, or career women, such as Henrietta Stackpole in The Portrait of a Lady. This gives a hint of the rising awareness among women. They had started to give more importance to their education, independence and liberty.

In choosing the subject of girls' education, James was moving, rather late perhaps, into an area of fierce social and literary debate. The 1890s was the era of the New Woman and, in the earlier years of the decade particularly, there was a proliferation of novels, usually by women, which self-consciously spoke on behalf of women and explored problems of female education and sexuality, the double standard and the validity of marriage. Conservative reaction attacked and refuted their premises and methods in periodicals and sometimes in more novels, reasserting the standard of womanliness which they had dared to question. At such a time, through his book The Awkward Age James discussed how a girl, going to enter her adulthood, should be introduced into the new social atmosphere so different from her convent so that she is not exposed to anything inappropriate before the ripe time. This subject had a great social relevance in Henry’s time.  He has tried to present a true picture of the corrupt London society of that time and how women were consciously and unconsciously participating in that. He suggests some possible remedies through his narrative.

While James has long been praised for his insightful portraits of female characters , his father was known to have a very conservative view of women. Henry James Sr. was a profound conservative regarding women’s rights. In 1853, he published “Woman and the Woman’s Movement” in which he insisted that women were intellectually inferior to men. Though James’ father was a great influence on him, he never supported his views on women. These views were strongly challenged by Minnie and Henry. This shows that Henry had not inherited his father’s views of women but always tried to replace them with his own. While James Sr. always insisted on keeping the women in their traditional frame, James Jr. advocated for offering them their right place in the society. A person should be judged on the basis of his/ her merits and not on the basis of sex. James wanted to write a very American tale characteristic of the social conditions of America of his time. He wanted to write about the situation of women and the agitation on their behalf. Thus  he set about depicting a group of Bostonian women concerned, in different ways and to different degrees, with the cause of feminism--or redressing the wrongs done to women by men over the centuries. In The Bostonians, James presents the battle between a southern male chauvinist Basil Ransom and a New England feminist Olive Chancellor for possession of a young attractive trance speaker Verena Tarrant. The novel’s hero Basil Ransom reflects James’ father’s conservative views about women. In the end he succeeds in winning Verena. Though as a human and as a writer James was very well concerned with the plight of the women but he couldn’t spare them for the wrong decision they took even when they were given complete liberty. Verena’s final rendition to the heroic Ransom can be understood as an implicit tragedy because despite her speeches against the male dominance in society, she herself fails to resist the charm of handsome Ransom. She chooses to be his wife though she knows very well what kind of life this marriage is going to give her. Isabel too chooses to return to her treacherous husband. But then society should acknowledge the qualities of renunciation, patience and forgiveness in women and respect them for these qualities.

James was always concerned with all the social, psychological and personal problems of women which makes his communion with feminine structures of subjectivity  unparalleled elsewhere in the work of nineteenth-century male writers. So in his fiction, James has tried to elevate the position of women considered as the marginal section by the society of his time . But then there is one section of the society—the poor section-- which James has rendered marginal in his fiction as he has hardly ever taken any of his major characters from this section.James was not concerned with all aspects of life. There is nothing of the ugly, the vulgar, the common, or the pornographic in James. He was not concerned with poverty or with the middle class who had to struggle for a living. Instead he was interested in depicting a class of people who could afford to devote themselves to the refinements of life. The Henry James novels mostly deal with the life of the affluent or upper middle class of society though certain characters from the lower middle class are also included. Novels such as The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors show little or no dialect and generally ignore lower classes. In one crucial respect, however, James was a master realist. Rather than concentrating on the externals of reality, James explored the internals. Specifically, he returned again and again to the complexities of human psychology. The more intellectual and affluent a person is, the more complex his/her life is.

Henry James’ works were based on the classical belief that high tragedy seldom involves the outer concerns of realism-the struggle to get a job, the fear of starving. It can be found rather in the failed aspirations of those who are free to live by a code and have no realistic excuses for their own failure. The stories of James tend to be records of seeing rather than doing. The characters are more like patients than agents, their business seems to be to register impressions, to receive illuminations rather than to make up their minds and set about deeds. This is the reason that James almost ignored the lower and the poor section of the society as these marginal people had very less to satisfy a psychological analyst like James.

The society of James’ time might have given less importance to the women but he has definitely shown them superior to their men in his fiction. James’ attitude towards women was a very balanced one. He supported neither the feminists nor the anti-feminists. James was very well aware of the plight of the women –both on the individual level and the universal level. In his novels, he is primarily concerned with the individuals but tries to turn these individual figures into universal ones as human tragedy is the same everywhere. Tragedy is a reality of human life whether it is in a lesser degree or a greater degree. Women, being  threatened , both at personal and social level, are more tragedy prone. So James is quite sympathetic in his attitude to these women. James is not usually interested in a mind that sees less than reality possesses. When he is, the central character is generally a male. In James’ fiction the cowards of mind and action are often the men, and it is left to the women to be of quality and character. These women are definitely made of a finer fibre than their male counterparts.



Work Cited

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady.