Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Massed Ambiguity": Fatness in Henry James's the Ivory Tower

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Massed Ambiguity": Fatness in Henry James's the Ivory Tower

Article excerpt

    [T]hat they are each the particular individual of the particular
    weight being of course of the essence of my donnee. They are
    interesting that way--I have no use for them here in any other.
    --Henry James, notes for The Ivory Tower (221) (1)

Henry James's final and incomplete attempt to write a new novel, The Ivory Tower, opens with "the deliberate step" of Rosanna Gaw, "a truly massive young person" (5) and closes with the novel's hero, Graham "Gray" Fielder, pondering the "massed ambiguity" of his fate and being greeted by the "florid, solid, smiling person" (198) of the heavyset Davey Bradham. From its start to its abrupt stop, this fragment of a novel foregrounds bodily presence and, indeed, corpulent mass in a manner perhaps unexpected from James's infamously abstract late prose. Bodies, bodily features, and conversations about bodies of "particular weight," especially "creatures so materially weighted" (23) as Rosanna and Davey Bradham, figure prominently, at times obsessively. (2) How does considering this help us understand James's abandoned novel, the penultimate staging of his long-cherished international theme, which follows Gray's return from Europe to the charmingly corrupt and corrupting world of his grotesquely enormous American inheritance? The fat body, I wish to suggest, offers in James's fragment and schema for the novel an unstable trope for social processes of marginalization, for economic and stylistic excess, and for his own sense of authorship. The Ivory Tower looks to obesity as a physical, psychological, and culturally inscribed state of both imprisonment, encirclement, containment, and of excess, spillage, and abandon. (3) At the same time, corpulent mass as a figure in James's text helps it explore moral and aesthetic potentialities. These torn visions of obesity reflect the novel's ambivalent response to fat's overwhelmingly negative social status--James's writing both reinscribes and resists readings of fatness as disease, as a site of shame, as waste.

James's pivotal treatment of corpulence may have been, as Susan Griffin and Tim Armstrong have argued, autobiographically informed by the author's ambivalent relation to his own fat body, by his ongoing anxieties about the femininity of fatness, and by his experiments with dieting (most notably his adoption of Fletcherist mastication in the early 1900s). In her insightful reading of Washington Square--the only other text by James to feature a fat woman as its central character--Griffin links Catherine Sloper's bulk to James's negotiation of his own weight issues and his parents' desire for both his independence and dependence. For Griffin, Catherine's weight suggests both an "expression of her desire to please her father, and the manifestation of a female power" of sexual independence "that her father wishes not to see" (133-34). Accordingly, "Catherine's story is that of the woman whom James simultaneously fears to marry and dreads that, unmarried and self-nurturing, he may become after all" (136). (4) But if Catherine Sloper's fatness signals a newly self-sufficient, even proactive yet highly anxious vision of female sexuality in James's work, The Ivory Tower, through its paired treatment of Rosanna Gaw and Davey Bradham as fat subjects, makes corpulence part of a wider critical concern with representation, reading, and management of the physical self, of style, and of the social circulation of fat discourse. Through a paired treatment of masculine and feminine obesity, James's novel both invokes and critiques gendered management of the fat body.

Weight is a slippery, unstable subject in James's late style, and in many ways, the bodies that swarm in The Ivory Tower mark the constructive tensions that, as Thomas J. Otten has recently suggested, attend any act of material representation, any representative claim in the world of his final novels. (5) In the only other substantial response to fatness in The Ivory Tower, Tim Armstrong argues for an economic reading of obesity as he charts discursive ties between James's Fletcherism and his revisionist aesthetics during and after the composing of the New York Edition:

    the text of the novel as we have it proposes a crude embodiment of
    financial status in its characters. … 
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