The Last Tales: The Appalled Appalling
THE dominant concern in James's fiction is knowledge. James repeatedly explored means by which the individual might develop his moral and aesthetic consciousness. In the beginning the school of experience is Europe, the spiritual testing ground where Newman and Isabel Archer attain a high degree of moral sensibility. In the nineties the setting is London, hideous in its selfish materialism, a world which has renounced the aesthetic and traditional past for the modern values of money, efficiency, and lust. In this shallow society the James protagonist--now a child--encounters only pain, with none of the benefits of civilization. His acquired knowledge--Maisie's for example--is mainly of the moral inadequacy of society. In The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, European civilization is not vulgar, but sterile. The impotent grace of Mme. de Vionnet and Prince Amerigo and the shrill beauty of Palazzo Leporelli and Matcham are James's symbols of a past without meaning in the present. In these novels the personal drama reflects social disintegration, the ultimate betrayal of the past. The veil of pretense, lending beauty to corruption, is ripped aside with the climax of each novel: Mme. de Vionnet and Chad in the boat, the cataclysmic storm in Venice, the sinister bridge game at Fawns.
James's symbols of social collapse retain their validity in the works that follow, for these stories show James's concern with the possibilities of spiritual expansion outside a social context. The only milieu given in these works is the degenerate money culture of America; in most of the tales there is no society at all, simply the abstracted individual. Especially in "A Round of Visits" and "The Bench of Desolation," but to a degree in the