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 the novel should "hold up a mirror to life"; in other words, the early realist was supposed to make an almost scientific recording 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 essence. Thus, James' realism, in the truest sense, means being faithful to his characters. 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 which, 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.
In later years, James, in writing about realism, maintained that he was more interested in a faithful rendition of a character in any given situation than in depicting all aspects of life. Therefore, when he has once drawn Isabel Archer's character in one situation, the reader can anticipate how she will act in any other given situation. Her actions are not unexplainable. We are able to logically understand all of her actions. Thus James' realism would never allow the characters to perform actions which would be inconsistent with their true natures.
Structure of The Portrait of a Lady
Almost all of James' novels are structured in the same way. There must be a center -something toward which all the lines point and which "supremely matters." This is essentially James' own explanation of his structure. The thing that "supremely matters" is the central idea of the novel or that idea around which the novel functions. In The Portrait of a Lady, the thing that "supremely matters" is for Isabel Archer to have the opportunity to develop freely to the limits of her own capacity. She is seen as a person who has great potential, but she does not have that freedom which would allow her to develop her own innate qualities. Therefore, almost all of the scenes and action of the novel are designed to hinder or to bring to completion this chance for Isabel to attain her full capacity.
James' creative process is also important to understanding the structure of his works. He begins his novels with a situation and a character. Many writers, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, would begin with an idea or theme in mind and then would create a situation and characters that would illuminate the basic idea, but James' technique is just the opposite. He created a certain situation, and then he would place his characters in it. James would then, in effect, sit back and simply observe what would happen when a character was confronted with this new situation. Often, James said, he had- no particular ending in mind when he began a novel. Instead, he would let the character and situation determine the ending. This allowed him more freedom, and allowed him the opportunity of "getting to know" his character by observing him in a series of scenes.
Thus, the central situation in The Portrait of a Lady is the arrival of a charming young girl in Europe who is restricted by having no means to travel and be free. Many characters who meet her wonder what would happen if she were perfectly free to develop to her fullest. The thing that "supremely matters" is the full development of Isabel Archer. Thus, it must be arranged to secure money for her and then we will simply watch her to see which of the great men of Europe she will finally choose for a husband.
We have said that all lines must point toward the thing that supremely matters, but these lines do not follow a straight course. This is not the way James structures his novels. Everything in the novel is aimed at the central situation, but he moves toward the center by exploring all the related matters. In other words, the structure could be best described by a series of circles around the center. Each circle is an event which illuminates the center, but highlights only a part of it. Each circle then is often a discussion by several different people. For example, one character observes something and then goes to another person to discuss his observation. Then two other characters might discuss the same event. By the end of the various discussions, James has investigated all of the psychological implications inherent in this particular situation. This would represent one circle. Then, we go to another event or situation, which will be fully discussed before proceeding to the next. Thus by the end of the novel, James has probed and examined every moral, ethical, and psychological aspect of the central situation, and the reader has heard the views of many people on the same subject.
Consequently, the structures of James' novels are circular in approach to the central subject, but every circle in some way illuminates the thing that supremely matters. Every incident functions to tell us more about a character or the situation. There is nothing that is superfluous or extraneous.