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

By J. A. Ward | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Evil and the International Theme

IT IS NOT difficult to explain Henry James's preoccupation with the international theme. As a historian of his times, James found considerably more meaning and interest than his contemporaries in the spectacles of international marriages and American tourists in Europe. Furthermore, James habitually saw human experience in terms of contraries. Through his repeated use of the international theme he gave cultural and national embodiment to the oppositions of innocence and experience, self and society, and good and evil which provide the dramatic tensions in all his works. The international theme offered James an inherent contrast between the most significant and extensive realities of his time.

"On the interest of contrasted things any painter of life and manners inevitably much depends, and contrast, fortunately for him, is easy to seek and to recognize," James writes; "the only difficulty is in presenting it again with effect, in extracting from it its sense and its lesson."1 The "sense" and the "lesson" of the international theme are the moral issues involved in a conflict of representative national figures; for, while social comedy rules a story like "The Point of View", moral drama rules the more typical "A London Life". In most of his international fiction James penetrates the comic surface to the ethical conflict beneath. Thus such stories as "Daisy Miller", "The Reverberator", and "An International Episode", which expose American provincialism and offended European propriety, derive their "sense" and their "lesson" from James's profound concern with the nature of good and evil.

In the international fiction James identifies both good and evil

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