Henry James: Contribution to The Modern English Novel

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      Henry James (1843-1916) holds a distinctive position in the history of the modern novel.

      Born in New York and educated in America and Europe, he became a friend of the New England group of writers like James Russell Lowell, H. W. Longfellow, William Dean Howells. He adopted London as his new home and in 1915 he became a nationalised British subject. It is said that he is the first theoretician of the novelistic art. He for the first time formulated a theory of the novel and established the novel as an art form. He gave the novel as Flaubert did in France the aesthetic intensity of a great poem or a great painting. In his theory or the novel which is set forth in his letters, in his critical essay, The Art of Fiction and in his innumerable prefaces and essays, Henry James laid stress on the artistic value of the novel. To him "the novel was primarily an art form to be judged solely by artistic canons, concerned not with moral purpose, but with the objective and impartial presentation of the reality of life." For James the novel is a persona, direct impression of life. The success of the novelist depends on his ability to give impression of a particular life dealt by him in his work.

Henry James holds a distinctive position in the history of the modern English novel
Henry James

      Henry James was, a prolific writer and wrote novels, short stories, travel sketches, literary criticism, etc. His work in the shade of fiction falls in the three groups. ln the first group are included Roderick Hudson, The American, The Europeans and The Portrait of a Lady. In these works James was mainly concerned with study of American life vis-a-vis European life and older European culture. In the second group are placed three novels dealing with English life and English character. These novels are The Tragic Muse, The Spoils of Poynton and The Akward Age. The third group includes his American studies and novels of maturity The Wings of Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima. According to Walter Allen, these are "novels of a classical perfection never consummately matched." The themes of his novels generally relate to the impact of one type of society upon the product of another in the study of the process of adjustment and their effect on the development of the individual character.

      The most important contribution of Henry James is to the development of the technique of the novel. He is, as a matter of fact, the father of the modern novel and paved the way for such technique as the stream of consciousness. He developed the technique of psychological analysis and dramatic presentation of the impressions of his characters, He evolved the technique of presenting his story through the consciousness of a single character, discarding the ubiquity and Omniscience of the traditional novelist. He evolved the single point of view Technique in the presentation of the impression.

      Henry James has a bitter hatred for the nineteenth century fiction which is discursive and not dramatic. It lacks a 'central intelligence'. The novels of Tolstoy and George Eliot are a stratification, they have a rich density of detail, the great word for James is Composition. He insists on unity or pictorial fusion of the diverse elements in a story. He sees the want of it in so many novels of great popularity and of classic distinction (including the novels of Tolstoy and George Eliot) He says: "What do such large loose baggy monsters with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean... delight in a deep-breathing economy and an organic form." He has a horror of the "loose ends" which he says has found a perfect paradise in English fiction. 

      In The Awkuward Age he says that it was his aim to compose a series of scenes as objective as those of a play - He has a great scorn for the omniscient authorship. In the maintenance of a point of view, he seeks a steady consistency of effect that comes of an exact centering of attention upon the chosen plot of consciousness. James secures a severe and stringent form by pictorial fusion, composition, elimination, dialogue and consistency in the choice and maintenance of point of view. The appeal of James is not that of diversity. It is fineness of texture and fastidiousness of workmanship that make for the interest of Jamesian novels. His novels have a dramatic pattern. His last three novels may be called expanded metaphors. In each the starting point is not an incident or an action, but a moment of consciousness, a sudden awareness of life. Events develop according to the strictest logic of life, but the apparently patternless flow of life is arrested within the form of the novel. There is no action in his novels, no plot worth the name. The last of his major novels, The Golden Bowl is incredibly subtle. An ordered vision of life is presented in terms of a silken gossamer web of impressions constantly being enlarged as the characters unfold their relationships to one another and to the fundamental moral situation. The novel is full of metaphors, images, hints and suggestions. This novel approximates to a poem.

      It is true that the novels of Henry James have appeal to the select few. The world of his novels is a narrow, limited world which interests only the highly sophisticated. His art of the novel carn be appreciated only by the connoisseurs of fiction. He has made the novel imitate drama, but the peculiarity of the novel as an art-form vests on its combination of the epic and the drama. But he has rescued the novel from the loose discursive shapelessness and has given it a form, a structure. The tendency of the modern novel towards greater and greater inwardness has really started from him.

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