The Imagination of Disaster: Evil in the Fiction of Henry James

By J. A. Ward | Go to book overview
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The purpose of this book is to investigate what seems to me a major yet relatively neglected aspect of James's fiction. It has often been remarked that evil in James usually takes the form of what Hawthorne in "Ethan Brand" calls the "Unpardonable Sin," the malign intervention of one person in the life of another; but there has been no systematic consideration of the forms and implications of this evil or of its relevance to James's general fictional purposes. Likewise, several critics have observed--but usually in other connections--that in the development from the early to the late fiction, the words "villain" and "hero" become increasingly less applicable to James's characters. One of my intentions is to reveal the changes and patterns in James's characterizations of the evildoer, and thus to shed light on a subject that has been illuminated only in part.

My emphasis is literary rather than theological or moral. The subject "evil" is a means to an end; it serves as a new focus for an explication of James's fiction. Therefore I do not concern myself with evil as such; and the definition of evil which I presuppose throughout is intentionally broad, so as to protect me from any arbitrary limitation of subject matter. Paul Siwek, a Jesuit, in The Philosophy of Evil provides the most inclusive and succinct definition of evil that I have seen:

[Evil is] all that opposes the intrinsic finality of a being. Therefore it is all that hinders the being's full development, all that thwarts its tendencies, all that resists the drive from the depths of that being toward full expansion, toward that completion which it would attain to in its ideal type, the archetype of its own nature (p. 50).

This definition is more satisfactory, because more philosophical, than those which define evil as that which destroys or which causes suffering. Furthermore, it crosses over a number of philosophical and theological boundaries, because, at least out of context, it leaves open the question of what "full expansion" is, and does not specify "all that opposes . . . finality."

However, with the implicit identification of good with growth, the definition seems especially useful for the consideration of a writer


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