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Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Golden Bowl By Henry James

The Golden Bowl
is the third Henry James novel that I have read. This is a classic story of marital infidelity. Though the two other books that I have read by this author had lots of inner introspection as well as analysis of characters and relationships, this book takes the prize for that sort of thing. This novel is characterized by pages and pages of analysis of people as well as their actions and motivations. Thus, while the plot is interesting it is not fast moving. James has fashioned a brilliant and unique work of literature that lends itself to slow and deep reading. I thought that this was excellent and I got a lot out of it, but this novel is not for readers who are looking for any kind of event driven story. This was written in 1904.

This novel is mostly about four people. Adam Verver is a fabulously wealthy American who is a collector of rare and fine objects and art. Maggie is his daughter. Maggie becomes engaged to Prince Amerigo. The Prince is a member of Italian royalty but he has no money. Before he knew Maggie, the Prince has fallen in love with a young woman named Charlotte Stant. The pair broke off their romance due to the fact that they were both poor. It turns out that Maggie and Charlotte are old childhood friends. At the time of the marriage neither Maggie nor her father know of The Prince and Charlotte’s earlier affair. Shortly before the wedding, The Prince and Charlotte go in search for a wedding gift for Maggie. Though they do not buy it, they come across a crystal bowl that is finely wrought but cracked. The bowl, which the novel takes its name from, becomes very important in terms of both plot and symbolism. A few years into the first marriage, Adam Verver proposes and marries Charlotte. 

The proximately is too much for the ex – lovers and The Prince and Charlotte eventually take up an affair with each other. Eventually Maggie discovers the liaison. As is typical of James’s characters, she communicates her knowledge to her unfaithful husband in a subtle way and quietly makes it known to him that she expects the affair to end. One of her prime motivations is aimed at preventing her father from finding out about the unfaithfulness of his spouse. All this is presented very slowly and very subtly.

The most important thing to say about this book, as I mentioned above, is the way that it delves in to the minds and actions of its characters. This is a deep and meticulous dive into the motivations and psychology of people. I would estimate that about 70% of the pages of this book are dedicated to this examination. Many other books are deep psychological studies. In fact, James himself has written other novels that dug into things in a similar way. It is the degree that this bookwork does these things that makes it so distinctive. I have read The Portrait of a Lady and The Turning of the Screw previously. Both those works displayed some if these characteristics, but not to the extent that this book does. In fact, nothing else that I have ever read comes close to the detailed examinations of life that James pulls off here. This makes this book a unique and special work of art. 

Something that goes along with all this is the complexity and unexpected aspects to the characters themselves. There is a sense that both Maggie and her father found partners partially because of their great wealth. I would have been easy for James to have portrayed them as unpleasant characters in order to illustrate this. However, on the contrary, they are very appealing people. They are thoughtful, kind and show absolutely no arrogance despite their wealth. In the end, though their wealth was used as kind of a hook to find partners, they are still attractive despite the riches. To me, this is complexity. 

The characters are different and complex in other ways too. At one point Maggie is considering that fact that she does not have strong feelings of jealousy,

She might fairly, as she watched them, have missed it as a lost thing; have yearned for it, for the straight vindictive view, the rights of resentment, the rages of jealousy, the protests of passion, as for something she had been cheated of not least: a range of feelings which for many women would have meant so much, but which for her husband’s wife, for her father’s daughter, figured nothing nearer to experience than a wild eastern caravan, looming into view with crude colours in the sun, fierce pipes in the air, high spears against the sky, all a thrill, a natural joy to mingle with, but turning off short before it reached her and plunging into other defiles. 

The above quotation is typical of much of the book. This analysis and introspection builds layers upon layers of complexity into James’s characters. As I mention above, the reactions and motivations of these characters are often unusual. This is exemplified by the fact that while bothered by her husband’s and friend’s affair, Maggie is really not jealous. 

The nature of the relationships are also unusual. Maggie and Charlotte are childhood friends. The fact that Charlotte marries Maggie’s father and technically becomes her step - mother is odd and the characters even mention that it disconcerts them a little. The fact that the unfaithful pair had fallen in love and wanted to marry in the past is also something that is not common in stories of infidelity. Maggie and her father also have an unconventionally close relationship and both her them neglect their respective spouses as a result.

James’s sentence structure is unusual and can be called awkward. Admittedly, I did not really know enough about writing to describe exactly why James’s sentences are so difficult, aside from the fact that they tend to be long. However, a little reading online indicates that many find him difficult because he uses subordinate clauses to excess.

The above quotation is one example. Another occurs when The Prince is contemplating his position in English society. 

He found it convenient, oddly, even for his relation with himself—though not unmindful that there might still, as time went on, be others, including a more intimate degree of that one, that would seek, possibly with violence, the larger or the finer issue—which was it?—of the vernacular.

To ease oneself into a book like this, a reader might want to start with The Portrait of a Lady or another James entry first. This may help assist reader with the unconventional prose style, as well as the novel's other peculiarities. 

This is a unique book for the reasons mentioned above. The deep and intricate musings are very interesting. It lends itself to slow and patient reading. Along with the depths that James plumbs here, the the book is a fascinating look at a handful of complex characters and relationships. However, I would only recommend reading this is one were prepared first. Folks going into this should not expect a plot driven story. Instead, it is a slow read about people. One also needs to be ready for James’s prose style. For those who are prepared for this, I would strongly recommend this as an original work of art that is like no other book that I have read.

54 comments:

Lark said...

So, I love Henry James. He's one of my favorite authors. But this is my least favorite book by him. His prose just isn't as well-drawn and concise as in his other books, and I think it's because he dictated this book rather than wrote it out by hand himself. It's still Henry James, but just not James at his best in my opinion. :)

mudpuddle said...

i don't recall now why i read this at an early age, thinking then that, as i would have probably imagined, the reader would, in a future state of sophistication, have been, possibly, more equipped, socially speaking, to maintain a presence...

sorry (haha).... i think the earlier reading of this put me off James for life; i've read some of his other stories with about the same reaction... kudos to you for your determination!

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I have never dared take the plunge into Henry James. Kudos to you for doing so!

thecuecard said...

If you can get through Henry James's novels, you can get through anything! Kudos to finishing this one. I'm glad you mention the excess of subordinate clauses -- that sentence you note is crazy. That's way too many clauses & commas -- enough to drive a copy editor like me - nuts. I'm glad you were able to get something out of the story ... likely too much subtlety for me. ... and marrying a friend's father I suspect can cause some problems - yikes.

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity said...

Brian I just finished this a couple of weeks ago and in the middle of my read I saw you post on Twitter that you'd read it and a blog post would follow. I am so glad because I just can't write this up, so I have to hand it to you :)

This novel could have lost at least 200 pages with all the repetition and "navel gazing." And yes, his sentence structure is indeed awkward. As I noticed in What Maisie Knew, here, he also has characters in dialog with each other repeat words and turn them in questions. He does this constantly and it annoys me to no end.

He is very confusing to me, because the actually stories he tells are deep and interesting, which is why I keep reading him. But I think I have had enough of his sentence structure and character analysis for awhile or I will stick with his short stories and novellas!

Brona said...

Like a number of your commenters, I read James in my late 20's. Went through a phase and read about 4 of them. But he is oh so tiring at the same time. By the end I felt like he was pontificating rather than story telling, so I had to stop that particular journey!
So well done you for continuing and helping to inspire or (re)inspire those of us left by the wayside.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lark - I did not know that James dictated this. He certainly was not concise in his writing here!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to read this book when young. The other James's books I read were less esoteric.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - I would start with The Turning of the Screw. It is more accessible then the other two that I have read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Laurie - It was challenging. It think that those 200 pages are what made this book so unique. I need to read more if his short stories.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Brona - I think that I would have gotten little out of this when younger. Even now, having gotten something out of it, I would wait a bit before I read more of him.

James said...

I read this novel several years ago and appreciate your excellent analysis of James' style. It is an example of James at the height of his powers as a novelist and, indeed, is a great novel. Having read a lot of James from various parts of his career I believe he reached his peak with this along with The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove.

reese said...

I'm an early James person myself and like them pretty well. The late Henry James I've read--I haven't read this one--are tough and I've always heard this one was the most difficult. Congratulations!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - The style of this book is so unique. We seem to be in the minority on approving the book.

I need to read both The Ambassadors and Wings of The Dove.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Rheese. I guess that I should read more of the later stuff.

reese said...

I read the Ambassadors (late) & liked it pretty well. But Washington Square or Roderick Hudson (early) are much more simply entertaining. (Well, Washington Square is pretty tragic, but still...)

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Henry James and Edith Wharton are linked in my mind because my first experience with both writers (reading Turn of the Screw and Ethan Fromme) did not go well. But then a few years later I read The Bostonians and House of Mirth and what a revelation! It pays to give the great writers a second chance if your first attempt at reading them doesn't work out.

Regarding Golden Bowl I would be curious how James explains Charlotte's psychology. Because Maggie is her friend and though one can make allowances for Maggie's father and Charlotte marrying to then go on and have an affair with Maggie's husband is a real betrayal.

Kirk said...

I've read The Ambassadors, which took me forever to read but was worth it, and Daisy Miller, which was worth it without taking me forever to read. The latter is an early work of James, and I think the prose style is just perfect. The subordinate clauses that you speak of are kept to a minimum, but there's still plenty of witty pontification. It's certainly not Hemingway.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rheese - I must give all those books a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - Though I think that both writers are brilliant, Wharton is so much more accessible

As for Charlotte and the Prince, the impression is that they were so in love, thrown together, and then somewhat neglected by their spouses, that they could not resist the temptation to be together.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kirk. I really have to delve into more James. I think that his writing got more intricate or awkward as he went on.

Lory said...

I've been meaning to read some James but given all these comments I think I would not start with this one. I think the sentence structure would drive me up the wall!

The Liberty Belle said...

Although I think that I would find the style of writing to be a bit difficult, the plot and character development seems to make up for it. Thank you for sharing such a good review. May you enjoy a lovely day.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - I probably would start with The Turning of the Screw.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle -The book has its rewards.

Have a great day!

Stefanie said...

I have not read this James novel but would like to sometime as I do very much enjoy is long, difficult sentences and sharp eye. Glad you enjoyed it so much!

Judy Krueger said...

I think I mentioned to you some time ago that Joyce Carol Oates read and admired Henry James. She too sometimes writes long sentences with many clauses and interspersed with the inner thoughts of a character. Though she does also keep a plot going! I don't mind that type of writing these days and you did a great job of explaining its difficulties for the reader as well as why you found it good. I have dug out my book of James's four short stories and intend to dive in soon.

Dorothy Borders said...

I've never read much James and, frankly, never felt any need to. Of the ones I have read, I think Portrait of a Lady is my favorite. Thank you for reading and reporting on The Golden Bowl so I don't have to!

The Padre said...

Yo Brother Man, This Does Sound Unique And Interesting - Hope The New Year 20BLK Jack Is Treating You Well - Also, Have You Ever Read An Element Of Trust?? Be Well And Stay Strong

Cheers

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - This book was one that I really had to work my way up to.I cannot I cannot imagine James's editors went through.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephanie - I would probably start with The Turn the Screw. This one would not be the best James to start with.

Brian Joseph said...

You made me laugh Dorothy. Portrait of a Lady was very good and more accessible then this.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - I need to give Joyce Carol Oats a read.

What a prose style that James showed here!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Padre - Things are going well in 2021 so far.

I have it read An Element of Trust. I tried to Google it. It looks difficult to get information on.

Carol said...

Sounds like a fascinating book, Brian. I love this type of character probing.Those subordinate clauses require a bit of mental gymnastics! I haven’t read any of his books ...yet.

baili said...

a powerful commentary as always dear Brain !

i truly find it fascinating the way you say it all as beautifully ,briefly and impressively !

i was finding this one really compelling because of the human psychology it deals with ,but then i read the sentences by the author and found them quite difficult ,i read the phrase repeatedly for sometime and then i could knew what i was reading
still book about human psyche attracts me most ,i think that as science says it too that each of is a complete universe inside ,i would love to dive and know how these universes work
ever person creates world around himself with the help of what he has inside and this facts feels so appealing
i found the story and book both worth trying and i would love to read it despite of effort it can take to understand author's opinion
thank you so much for rich and wonderful review once again!
wishing you all the best for days ahead Brian!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I haven’t read this one. My only James book was The Turn Of The Screw, which I read for my university English subject. This one does sound a bit slow for me. But interesting that being rich doesn’t, in this book, necessarily mean you are horrible!

Whispering Gums said...

I've read a small number of Henry James novels but have donated to read more, including this one.

I suspect your advice about starting with something like Portrait of a lady is a good one, because I agree that some of his prose can be dense and obscure.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I'm glad to see you reviewing a book like this. Henry James has always been a favorite of mine. I haven't read this novel, but I have it. I've been getting back into my Henry James collection.

Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - You should give this one a try, I am curious to see if you find it difficult from his other words.

The Padre said...

Yo Brother, Bummer On The Google Search - Its A Fun Read Book About A Guy Who Hitchhikes Around The Staes For Two Years - Easy Read And Interesting Adventures - Anyway, Enjoy Your Weekend And Stay Hydrated

Cheers

Susan Kane said...

This type of writing is unusual today. His evolvement of characters is excellent. It has been decades since I read Henry James. Thanks for renewing my interest.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Indeed one rarely encounters anyone writing like James today.

His character development was also unique.

Paula Vince said...

I do like a good psychological study in a novel, and stories with a small cast of characters are usually interesting, but I haven't been brave enough to tackle Henry James yet. This one sounds interesting.

Unknown said...

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Susan Kane said...

Excellent. It is time to re-read the Portrait of a Lady. I enjoy the delving into characters as driving the stories.

Odd side note here: Have you ever seen the movie "Fargo"? Picture Minnesota, snow, and peculiar people. The examination of the two bad-guys is so well revealed by subtle hints.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The presentation of character here was unique.

I have seen Fargo though it has been awhile. I do remember the characterization being excellent.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
I've been away from all blogging for a while. It's nice to read about books online again!
The characters in this novel (which was new to me) do sound very complex. Thank you for your thoughtful commentary.

The Padre said...

Sending Some Vibes Brother

Cheers

Harvee said...

Everything's so subtle with Henry James, but his novels of betrayal and cunning manipulation are devastating

Brian Joseph said...

Good vibes Padre.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - The subtle is unique and it is James's signature.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Encouraged to read this by a teacher way back when, I found the issues 'too big'. Longing to say that if I were to read it today I'm sure I'd better understand it, truth is, reading your review, I'm not sure I would.

As always I admire how you tackle these books; of the depths you reach, thank you.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Felicity - This one really is best for those of us who like unusual and slow books. Even so looking at some reviews three are some folks who like that sort of stuff who did not like this.

Either way I think that I would have hated this when I was younger.