The Imagination of Disaster: Evil in the Fiction of Henry James

By J. A. Ward | Go to book overview

Conclusion

According to its traditional meaning, the concept "evil" implies the existence of absolute moral standards. In modern times, however, "evil" is most often but a convenient term loosely applied to any form or agent of injury and pain; rarely is it intended to suggest a deviation from a transcendent and unchanging moral order. Since the early eighteenth century, the notion of uniform standards of "good" on the levels of personal, social, and political behavior has lost much ground to more relativistic views of morality.

In this respect, Henry James's relation to his age is curious. James, I think, assumes absolute standards of good and evil; his approach to morality is reactionary--closer to that of Shakespeare and Milton than that of Zola and Dreiser. Yet, if the moral code is an absolute one in James's fiction, his characters perceive it only in the most subjective way. They apprehend both good and evil through the "moral sense," ultimately a faculty of spiritual intuition. The reason is not just that in the stage of history treated by James there is no uniformity of moral standards or any religious, political, or social body which gives voice and authority to common notions of right and wrong, but that James in part shares the modern skepticism. There can be no externally derived moral knowledge. Evil exists absolutely, but hardly objectively.

Because evil is an absolute to James, it must be distinguished from mere failures in manners or violations of conventions, though it exists in close relation to extremely formal, and relative, social standards. James presumes a traditional conception of evil, yet dramatizes it in rarefied social conflicts. In this respect he can be said to urbanize Hawthorne. It is a tribute to James's range and

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The Imagination of Disaster: Evil in the Fiction of Henry James
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Contents xi
  • Chapter One - the Consciousness of Evil 3
  • Chapter Two - Evil and the International Theme 18
  • Chapter Three - Evil in London 56
  • Chapter Four - Evil and the Major Phase 102
  • Chapter Five - the Last Tales: the Appalled Appalling 157
  • Conclusion 168
  • Notes 172
  • Index 183
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