Critical Essays Structure of Henry James' Novels


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 Daisy Miller, the thing that "supremely matters" is Winterborne's attempt to discover how innocent Daisy really is. That is, could she possibly be a mistress of the art of deception and in truth be essentially an improper girl, or is she simply responding so innocently and spontaneously to life that she ignores all the rules of decorum. Thus, every scene is structured to illustrate something more about Daisy's personality. Likewise, in The Turn of the Screw, the thing that "supremely matters" is the innocence of the young children. Consequently, every scene and every action is designed to further illuminate this question. We are constantly pondering the relative innocence or evil of the young children.

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 to 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 outcome. 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 Daisy Miller is the arrival in Europe of a charming young girl who feels restricted by the formalized rules of behavior in Europe. Owing to her failure to observe certain social restrictions, she is considered improper by many people. But others recognize that her actions are a part of her free American ways and maintain that she is innocent. Consequently, Daisy is placed in various situations where we can observe her actions and determine to what degree she is innocent and spontaneous.

The central situation in The Turn of the Screw involves the governess' view of her charges. Consequently, certain situations are created so that we may watch the governess react to the innocence or evil of her pupils.

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 that 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 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 situation. There is nothing that is superfluous or extraneous.

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