Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

'What Maisie Knew' and the Improper Third Person

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

'What Maisie Knew' and the Improper Third Person

Article excerpt

James' preface to What Maisie Knew is oddly defensive in tone. James is clearly uneasy about the novel's subject, the dilemma of a young girl surrounded by the adulterous intrigues of her parents and step-parents, and he devotes some attention to anticipating charges of having "mixed Maisie up" in the novel's erotic quadrangle. As often in the history of James criticism, the preface has proven a self-fulfilling prophecy: critics have tended to repeat the antinomies of James' own ambivalence towards the novel, replaying both the preface's and the text's own internal debate as to whether Maisie is corrupt or innocent, disingenuous or precociously wise--the ambiguity, in short, about how much Maisie knows.

The novel's critics, including James himself, are correct in their intuition that Maisie's equivocal knowledge invites investigation, such as the novel's own repeated probings of her "moral sense." But, as I shall argue, James' own doubts about the moral sense of What Maisie Knew, and the playing out of these doubts in subsequent criticism, can be attributed to something other than the novel's manifest thematic content. His defensiveness may arise less from its adulterous theme than from a representational strategy that creates the knowledge it appears to reflect, for though the narrator claims merely to report what Maisie knows, he is deeply implicated in the construction of that knowledge. Maisie's ambiguous knowledge and her ultimate scapegoating, the figurative death marked in James' preface as "the death of her childhood," are themselves produced by the Jamesian representational strategy of the central intelligence, which both brings Maisie into being and sacrifices her in the name of its own antithetical logic.

As its title indicates, What Maisie Knew is explicitly concerned with the epistemology of the Jamesian reflective center. The novel's narrative strategy is one of deliberate self-restriction to Maisie's impressions; as James exhorts himself in his notebook entries, "make my point of view, my line, the consciousness . . . of the child . . . EVERYTHING TAKES PLACE BEFORE MAISIE."(1) But because "children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them,"(2) this scheme assumes a rhetorical disjunction between narrator and receptive intelligence. If Maisie is an "infant" (AN, p. 145) in the etymological sense of infans, speechless or without language, then the "great gaps and voids" of her verbal capacity must be filled by the narrator himself. Although "Maisie's terms accordingly play their part," the narrator's "own commentary constantly attends and amplifies," translating Maisie's perceptions into "figures that are not yet at her command" (AN, pp. 145, 146). The narrator fills out the lacunae of Maisie's linguistic resources and mediates her preverbal consciousness. His relation to her is one of translation or metaphor, through those words' shared etymological meaning of a transference or carrying over.

The ambiguities of this scheme may account for the defensive tone of the preface.(3) In his eagerness to forestall the objection that "nothing could well be more disgusting than to attribute to Maisie so intimate an 'acquaintance' with the gross immoralities surrounding her" (AN, p. 149), James acknowledges the rhetorical conundrum pointed to by the novel's title. For given the difficulty of distinguishing the narrator's terms from Maisie's, since she can only know what the narrator tells us she knows, "what Maisie knew" names a symbiotic narrative relation in which her knowledge depends on its articulation by the adult narrator.(4) And despite James' scruples about "the |mixing-up' of a child with anything unpleasant" (AN, pp. 148-49), the novel's opening figuratively repeats exactly this crime: Maisie's parents pour "evil" into her "little gravely-gazing soul as into a boundless receptacle," and the Jamesian vessel of consciousness becomes "a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed. …

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