Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Risking the Cracks: The Mystic Self in Henry James's the Golden Bowl

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Risking the Cracks: The Mystic Self in Henry James's the Golden Bowl

Article excerpt

When Maggie Verver, in Henry James's novel The Golden Bowl, first begins to suspect that her husband, Amerigo, is having an affair, it's not because of his unexplained absences or his evident predilection for the company of his beautiful young mother-in-law, Charlotte. Such material "clues" as these mean less than nothing to her. They can be explained by the cozy "arrangement" among the four (Maggie, Amerigo, Charlotte, and Maggie's father, Adam), in which Maggie is a willing participant - and which, however curious it may appear to the uninitiated, satisfactorily accounts for such apparent oddities as Amerigo's repeated public appearances with his mother-in-law. In fact, it is not any action of Amerigo's that arouses Maggie's suspicions - she catches him in no furtive look of love, no subtle betrayal of hidden passion. Instead, she simply has a growing sense that her husband and her stepmother are connected in some way. She begins to recognize in Amerigo expressions, phrases, and attitudes that she has seen in Charlotte: to identify a "kinship of expression in the two faces" (349) and "identities of behavior, expression and tone" (350). The two seem to have the same impulses, the same words, and, worst of all, the same way of "treating" her (353). Their "kinship" comes to seem, for her, like "a medallion containing on either side a cherished little portrait": "The miniatures were back to back, but she saw them for ever face to face, and when she looked from one to the other she found in Charlotte's eyes the gleam . . . that had come and gone for her in the Prince's" (350).

The narrator of The Sacred Fount, who, like Maggie in The Golden Bowl, becomes absorbed in trying to identify the existence of hidden passions and illicit affairs by tracing their effects, comments that:

It was of course familiar enough that when people were so deeply in love they rubbed off on each other - that a great pressure of soul to soul usually left on either side a sufficient show of tell-tale traces. (16)

For the narrator, the idea that a passion sufficiently intimate and intense enables some kind of transfer between the lovers is "familiar enough." But he takes this "familiar" idea further, speculating that passion between lovers opens a kind of "channel" between them through which the very essence of each may flow into the other, as "the full-fed river sweeping to the sea" (245). Sexual passion, he suggests, is transformative: youth, energy, beauty, charm, and intellect may flow from one person to another, resulting in visible, tangible changes in each. Thus the narrator, when he confronts one of his "suspects," Gilbert Long, uses very similar words to those Maggie finds to describe her sense of a foreign influence in her husband: "He faced me there with another light than his own, spoke with another sound, thought with another ease and understood with another ear" (163).

This aspect of The Sacred Fount has been seen by Leon Edel as one of the most explicit developments of the so-called "vampire theme" in James's work (Henry James 16). This is because of the emphasis in the novel on the "draining" of one partner by the other: in the process of "exchange," one person becomes "bloated" (67) while the other is sucked dry (81); "[o]ne of the pair . . . has to pay for the other" (29). Indeed, in developing his theory about the Brissendens, the narrator tells his friend Obert that what Mrs. Brissenden, who appears to have suddenly acquired a youth and beauty she has never had before, has extracted from her husband, who appears to grow older by the minute, is "new blood"; and he, to supply her with "her extra allowance of time and bloom," has "had to tap the sacred fount" (29) of his own energy, indeed, his very life, and is thus visibly depleted. While the vampirical Mrs. Brissenden is "the flooded banks into which the source had swelled" (245), her victim-husband, the "source," is "paying to his last drop" (30). …

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