Roderick Hudson and The Tragic Muse
If on a rare occasion one of these couples might be divided, so,
by as uncommon a chance, the other might be joined; the only
difference being in the gravity of the violated law. For which
pair was the betrayal greatest?
—Henry James, The Sacred Fount
l·lOW COULD HENRY JAMES REPRESENT INDIVIDUALITY IN NOVELS that stress his characters’ shared traits? Applying this question to James’s rather “stolid” novel The Tragic Muse (1889; 1890) highlights two related problems. According to its narrator, the novel’s characters fail to resolve “the opposition of [their] interest and desire”; in “a torment of unrest” they confront “the impossibility of being consistent.”1 When James tried to explain these problems in his “Preface to The Tragic Muse,” he confirmed that the novel inadvertently raises profound questions about the nature and stability of character. The initial object of James’s complaint is Miriam Rooth; allegedly, her “theatrical” personality is inauthentic. However, James raises an important, if less severe, charge against masculinity that is only partly veiled by his preoccupation with femininity’s ability to ensnare its masculine admirers.
This essay interprets the tension between individuality and desire in The Tragic Muse. It asks why James conflates Miriam’s “theatrical” personality with femininity, and why the novel’s aesthetic failure exceeds James’s difficulties with his characters’ credibility and sexuality.2 I contend that James’s conventional association of femininity with instability is only the most symptomatic “problem” of this novel; the narrative confronts another challenge in trying to unify its central “object,” for its attention shifts from the vagaries of a female character (Miriam Rooth) to the thoughts and desires of her closest male friend (Gabriel Nash). I address the consequence of this shift by assessing the widespread gap between desire and