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

By J. A. Ward | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER THREE
Evil in London

THE INEFFECTUAL HERO

THE PRINCESS CASAMASSIMA (1886) is a bridge between the international fiction of the eighties and the London novels of the nineties. James has switched the scene from the European continent to London, the hero's nationality from American to British, and his economic condition from wealth to poverty. But the basic elements of his character and adventure are the same: the intelligent and imaginative person is introduced to a world of culture and wealth which takes him into its confidence and then betrays him. James's major alteration in The Princess Casamassima and most of his novels of the next fifteen years is to diminish the stature of the hero. He is not only poor, but he is also powerless. Unlike the Americans who invade Europe with dynamic vigor and confidence, the heroes of the London novels are armed only with their sensibilities.

Christopher Newman and Isabel Archer are allowed an initial triumph before encountering disaster, but the London hero makes no progress; he is thwarted from the beginning. Isabel gains a qualified victory over her antagonists. Her innate charm, dignity, and intelligence contrast favorably with the acquired finesse of the expatriate Americans. Her moral superiority to Mrs. Touchett, Mme. Merle, and Gilbert Osmond is unequivocal. She loses happiness, but she acquires spiritual nobility. After Isabel, James's heroes and heroines become progressively less attractive, so that with "The Turn of the Screw" and The Sacred Fount they become as perverse and grotesque as their adversaries.

In James's fiction of the 1890's, goodness reaches its nadir.

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