About The American


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. At the same time, 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 stock yards so as to get a little life into his novels. Others have suggested that James' world is too narrow and incomplete to warrant the title of a realistic depiction of life.

Actually, James' realism is of a special sort. By the early definitions of realism, 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.

Then what is James' special brand of realism? When we refer to James' realism, we mean James' truth to his own material. To best appreciate James' novels and his realism, we must enter into James' special world. It is the same as though we ascended a ladder and arrived at another world. Once we have arrived at this special world and once we accept this world, 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 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 is 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 in James' novels, it is conceivable that man can experience the same things that his characters are experiencing, but in the romantic novel, man can never actually encounter the events narrated in the 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 novel. 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 The American thought that in one incident he had himself violated his realism. This concerns the Bellegardes. He later felt that the Bellegardes "would positively have jumped then . . . at my rich and easy American, and not have 'minded' in the least any drawback — especially as, after all, given the pleasant palette from which I have painted him, there were few drawbacks to mind." This then was the type of realism which James was concerned with — a faithful rendition of character in any given situation. And as with the Bellegardes, never to allow the characters to perform an action which would be inconsistent with the true nature of the character.

Structure of The American

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 around which the novel functions. In The American, the thing that "supremely matters" is the love affair between Christopher Newman and Claire de Cintré. Therefore, almost all of the scenes and action of the novel are designed to hinder or to bring to completion this romance.

James' creative process is also important to an understanding of 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 which would illuminate the basic idea. James' technique is just the opposite. He created a certain situation, and then he would place his character in this situation. Theoretically, then, James would sit back and simply observe what would happen when this character was confronted with this particular 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 American is the arrival of a rich American in Europe in search of a wife. After his meeting with Claire de Cintré, the thing that "supremely matters" is his success in obtaining Claire for his wife. Thus we have the character, the situation, and the thing that "supremely matters."

We said above that all lines must point toward the thing which supremely matters. But these lines do not go in a straight line. 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 circling the center. Each circle is an event which illuminates the center, but probes only a part of the center. 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 probed all of the psychological implications inherent in this particular situation. This would represent one circle. The discussions do not lead us directly to the center, but rather they fully illuminate one aspect of the circle. Then, we go to another event or situation which will be fully discussed before proceeding to the next. Thus at the end of the novel, James has probed and examined every moral, ethical, and psychological aspect of the central situation, and the reader has seen the views of many people on the same subject.

Thus the structure of James' novels is 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 the character or the situation. There is nothing that is superfluous or extraneous.