The Realism of Henry James
Henry James has had a tremendous influence on the development of the novel. Part of this influence has been through the type of realism that he employs. On the other hand, the most frequent criticism against James has been that he is not realistic enough. Many critics have objected that James does not write about life, that his novels are filled with people whom one would never meet in this world. One critic (H. L. Mencken) suggested that James needed a good whiff of the Chicago stockyards so as to get a little life into his novels. Others have suggested that James' world is too narrow and incomplete to warrant classification as a realistic depiction of life.
Actually James' realism is of a special sort. By the early definitions, James is not a realist. The early definitions stated that the novelist should accurately depict life and that the novel should "hold up a mirror to life"; in other words, the realist was supposed to make an almost scientific record of life.
But 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.
What then is James' special brand of realism? When we refer to James' realism, we mean James' fidelity to his own material. To best appreciate his novels and his realism, we must enter into James' special world. It is as though we ascended a ladder and arrived at another world. Once we have arrived at this special world and once we accept it, then we see that James is very realistic. That is, in terms of his world, he never violates his character's essential nature. Thus, James' realism, in the truest sense, means being faithful to his character. In other words, characters from other novels often do things or commit acts that don't seem to blend in with their essential nature. But the acts of the Jamesian character are always understandable in terms of that character's true nature,
James explained his own realism in terms of its opposition to romanticism. For James the realistic represents those things which, sooner or later, in one way or another, everyone will encounter. But the romantic stands for those things that, with all the efforts and all the wealth and facilities of the world, we can never know directly. Thus, it is conceivable that one can experience the same things that the characters are experiencing in a James novel, but one can never actually encounter the events narrated in the romantic novel.
When James, therefore, creates a certain type of character early in the novel, this character will act in a consistent manner throughout the entire book. This is being realistic. The character will never do anything that is not logical and acceptable to his realistic nature, or to our conception of what that character should do.
Writing about realism in later years, James maintained that he was more interested in a faithful rendition of a character in any given situation than in depicting all aspects of life. Accordingly, when he has once drawn Winterborne's or Daisy Miller's character in one situation, the reader can anticipate how that person will act in any other given situation. Likewise, the governess' actions, even in view of possible unrealistic apparitions, are always consistent. We are always able logically to understand all the actions of any character. Thus James' realism would never allow the characters to perform actions that would be inconsistent with their true natures.