Academic journal article Style

Henry James in Mid-Career: "Georgina's Reasons" and the Possibilities of Style

Academic journal article Style

Henry James in Mid-Career: "Georgina's Reasons" and the Possibilities of Style

Article excerpt

In the early 1960s, Oscar Cargill and Leon Edel criticized James's 1884 short story "Georgina's Reasons" for posing a problem of character-motivation that it fails to resolve. What are the "reasons" of the story's title? What are Georgina's reasons for marrying, secretly and against her parents' wishes; for keeping the marriage a secret and making her husband promise to do the same; when she becomes pregnant for hiding the pregnancy, even from her husband; for abandoning her child after he is born; for bigamously remarrying; and, finally, for refusing to grant her first husband a divorce so that he can legally marry again? Identifying Georgina, who upon her second marriage becomes "Georgina Roy," as a precursor to Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove, Cargill compared the story unfavorably with the novel, arguing that, because of her poverty, Kate Croy is "far more plausibly motivated" than Georgina, for whom James provides no such clearcut motivation (348). Two years after Cargill published this judgment, Edel called "Georgina's Reasons" "a strange unmotivated sensational little story" (56), his disparagement effectively sealing its fate as one of James's least read short fictions. According to Edel's verdict, the inadequacy of James's psychological conception of his heroine results in formal narrative failure: Georgina is "unmotivated," therefore the story is too. On the basis of this formal failure, Edel assigns the tale to one of the lowest in the hierarchy of fictional genres, the sensational, a categorization that in turn supports his measure of the work as "little." "Georgina's Reasons" is one of James's longer tales, (1) so the smallness ascribed to it by Edel must reflect, not its page extent, nor indeed the geographical reach of its action (which, as I will discuss later, is broad), but a sense of what the work achieves--little.

Yet surely James was too canny a writer to choose a title for his story that would draw attention to what is, according to Cargill and Edel, its greatest flaw. Rather, I believe that he used the title "Georgina's Reasons" to create an expectation on the reader's part, which the story deliberately frustrates, thereby opening what Frank Kermode calls, with reference to later James works such as What Maisie Knew and The Sacred Fount, a "hermeneutic gap," which the reader must explore but cannot close. (2) The title focuses the reader's attention on the question, why? It also seems to invite a rational, ethical mode of answering that question, which its subject matter resists. This resistance forces readers to consider carefully not only what they know about Georgina, but also how they know it. Specifically, James's refusal to provide a secure interpretative ground for Georgina's actions challenges the reader to compare possible theoretical and literary models for understanding her character and behavior. I will consider four frames of reference within which the reader may "read" Georgina and her reasons: theological, political, scientific and geographical. Each of these conceptual frameworks corresponds to a fictional genre that James could use to tell her story: sensation fiction, New Woman fiction, naturalism, and the international tale. The problem of the heroine's motivation thus provides the occasion for a consideration of the kinds of fiction that were available for James to write in the mid-1880s, and of the capacities and limitations of each kind for developing his chosen subject--a woman whose unconventional and destructive behavior defies rational understanding.

James adumbrated this subject in The Portrait of a Lady with the character of Mrs Touchett, whose strange and hurtful behavior towards her husband and son rests upon "reasons which she deemed excellent" (Novels 211) but which remain opaque to others. She had "an extreme respect for her own motives" and "was usually prepared to explain these--when the explanation was asked as a favour; and in such a case they proved totally different from those that had been attributed to her" (211). …

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