Sunday, December 14, 2008

Henry James's "The Golden Bowl"

In The Golden Bowl, James finds the perfect metaphor for his material and his method. The comforts of life, enjoyed by rich Americans Adam Verver and his daughter Maggie, are rounded and finished off by their collection of art. To this connoisseurship of life and art, they add the Italian Prince, immensely cultured, immensely poor, whose marriage to Maggie initiates the plot. The marriage also initiates a crack in the blessed cup since the Prince was intimately involved with Maggie's friend Charlotte Stant before the marriage, but chooses to hide that intimacy from his bride. Maggie's marriage disturbs the loving equilibrium between father and daughter who advises him to re-marry, so that he will not be alone. The circle closes when Adam Verver, to please his daughter, marries Charlotte, and the impoverished girl accepts the older man for the sake of her passion for the Prince. This outline is but a mould, whereas the novel itself is the golden bowl. 

The work is divided into two parts, the first told mainly from the Prince's perspective, the second from the Princess', that is, Maggie's, both in a limited third person point of view. "Point" is perhaps the wrong word for the rich and subtle depiction of the consciousness of each protagonist, a consciousness compared in the novel to wine filling a bowl. The work is a heady draught. It is an intoxicating drama of realization, a drama I now see as the essence of James's late novels. In The Wings of the Dove, Merton Densher realizes what he is asked to do by his lover Kate Croy, in wooing the dying heiress Milly Theale. In The Ambassadors, Lambert Strether realizes the truth in the relationship between the young man Chad Newsome, whom he comes to Paris to save, and his mistress Madame de Vionnet. 

In both novels, as in The Golden Bowl, what is realized is far less important than how the realization comes about. How does the Prince come to understand the bowl of marriage in which he has been offered from father to daughter, and the bowl of passion which Charlotte offers to him? How does the Princess come to grasp the bowl of deception in which the illicit lovers have so tenderly placed herself and her father? But if human consciousness can hold so rich a brew, it cannot hold everything. We never find out what exactly transpired between the Prince and Charlotte during the Matcham weekend, the sum total of their "affair." That memory belongs to Charlotte, who has to leave her lover finally, the man for whom she would do anything. 

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