Henry James Theories of Fiction Writing

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      Henry James: a great innovator
Critics like William Dean Howells, Bragdon Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot uphold the fact that Henry James is one of the great novelists, whose contributions to fiction are indisputably important. As a theoretician of fiction too Henry James popularity knows no limits. He has written about almost every aspect of fiction in the form of prefaces, casual notes, and critical studies on eminent masters of fiction. The patience and scholarship of F.O. Mathiessen and book-form which came out in 1947 - The Note-Books of Henry James.

      His own definition of fiction is given in his essay, "The Art of Fiction", first published in 1884. Henry James has dwelt on really important and significant questions such as the relationship of art and life, realism in fiction, moral significance of art etc.

James’s views on ‘Art’ and ‘Life’

      James never forgot the difference between life and art. He believed that life is chaotic and art is selective. “It is art that makes life, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process” wrote James at the close of his life. According to him, life is “all inclusion and confusion” and art “all discrimination and selection”. He does not mean that the gulf separating Art and Life is unbridgeable. In fact he could transmute the transitory and inchoate stuff of life into art and then seal it with permanence. Not only this, art arranges and idealizes life. In ‘The Art of Fiction he wrote, “humanity is immense and reality has myriad forms; the most one can affirm is that some of the flowers of fiction have the odor of it and others have not; as for telling you in advance, how your nosegay should be composed that is another affair. It is equally excellent and inconclusive to say that one must write from experience, to our suppositions aspirant such a declaration might savor of mockery. What kind of experience is intended and where does it begin and end? Experience is never limited and it is never complete - it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every airborne particle in the tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind and when the mind is imaginative - much more than it happens to be that of a man of genius—it takes itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations”.

Organic Growth of Art

      James believed in the organic growth of art or the theory of Donne i.e, art grows from within, some mysterious forces are at work and make the writer do what they desire. Nothing is imposed in the sense that a writer does not self-consciously choose a subject, or a theme but everything comes from within with a sudden release of an idea. This is a romantic view of inspiration in the Jamesian form. Janus has discussed it in his Preface to the Portrait of a Lady.

Art and Morality

      Henry James never approved of art for art’s sake. He believed that art is not merely craftsmanship ; and craftsmanship and beauty, if imposed for their own sake, have absolutely no meaning. A moral vision should always undergird a work of art. It is the moral vision which accounts for the greatness of Tolstoy over Flaubert. In this connection we will quote the remarks of Edith Warton... “but Henry James had as keen an eye for the plastic value of ‘subjects’ as for their moral importance. In this connection, I remember once getting an enlightening glimpse of his ideas. We were discussing Flaubert for whom his early admiration had called and for whose inner resonance I accused him of having lost his ear. James objected that Flaubert’s subjects were not worth the labor spent on them to which I returned: ‘But why isn’t Madame Bovary as good a subject as Anna Karenina? Both novels turn upon a woman’s love affairs’. “Ah” he said, “but one paints the fierce passion of a luxurious aristocracy, the other deals with the petty miseries of little bourgeois in a provincial town”. Here James has made a distinction between craftsmanship and art—It’s Tolstoy’s moral concerns that make him great. He believed that an artist’s business is to study human life and the moral concerns are woven into the very texture of this human life and an artist should help the reader to some new understanding of human nature. His remarks on Baudelaire uphold his viewpoint that it is not the mean or trivial subject matter but the inextricably integrated moral vision in a work of art which makes an artist great.

      Quentin Anderson’s remarks in this connection are also worth remembering : “Henry James was concerned with the life of the soul something which he found lacking in Flaubert (faith in the power of the moral to offer a surface, a situation, a story) the power of such moral is felt by the artist who has faith that the sources of life shine through appearances and it follows that James is painting to the artist’s capacity to give the moral life the form appropriate to it, the forms of the works of art”. We can sum up our comments about James’s concept of life and Art only by repeating what Conrad said, Henry James “was a historian of fine consciences”.

Realism and Romance

      James never liked to categorize Realism and Romance since it was not possible. Art should have ‘an air of reality’ but it should also be remembered that if there will be no Romance, there won’t be any charm in fiction. The details in life as well as in art are both sordid as well as beautiful. Each and every detail in his novel is suggestive of a new dimension of life. Every detail was to give “a direct, personal impression” and not suggest that the details were exclusive in themselves. In this connection, we can also note that James used the method of foreshortening his approach to actual life. Past, Present and Future all exist together; together, they form an organic whole. Any ‘present’ to him was a foreshortened manifestation of the ‘past’ as the ‘present’ did not exist without ‘past’. In the same way every important scene in the novel should unfold the past too. James believed reality to be “the supreme virtue of the novel”. This virtue, to a large extent, depended on the quality and quantity of the experience of the novelist.

James contributed to the development of the New Novel Form

      Towards the end of the 19th century, the traditional three-volume novel was moving away from the focus giving way to the one-volume novel. The three-volume novel had as its stuff anything and everything. But the new novel demanded a more careful selection of incidents and material. The demands of new reading public also brought forth, besides this one-volume novel, the ‘straight novel, the psychological novel, the novel of the adventure, the detective novel, the thriller novel, the woman’s romance etc. Henry James’s contribution in this respect was immense.

Different elements of novel always melt into each other

      James believed that different elements of a novel could never be separated from one another. He always propagated the unity of substance and form. James also asserted that every novelist had a philosophy of his own which was sprinkled in his works. His philosophy should be a sound one, a step beyond the literal surfaces, beyond the trivial concerns because it is his very philosophy which in his works is essential and which discriminates him from other writers. James wrote about Dickens: “Dickens is a great observer and a great humorist but is nothing of a philosopher for a novelist very soon has need of a little philosophy. He must know man as well as men and to know man is to be a philosopher. The writer who knows men alone, if he has Dickens’s humor and fancy, will give us figures and pictures for which we cannot be too grateful, for he will enlarge our knowledge of the world. But when he introduces men and women whose interest is pre-conceived to lie not in the poverty, the weakness, the drollery of their natures but in their complete and unconscious subjection to ordinary and healthy human emotions, all the humor, all his fancy, will avail him nothing if, out of the fullness of his sympathy, he is unable to prosecute those generalizations in which alone consists the real greatness of art”.

Action proceeds from the character

      James always felt that in the process of writing all action should proceed from characters. Action to him was the soul of the novel. In “The Art of Fiction” he remarked, “What is character but the determination of incident. What is incident but an illustration of Character?" It is because of this that external historical events, such as wars, accidents, Cosmic happenings, the overt, intervention of other characters are hardly a determining factor in the action of the novel. Setting too plays an important part in James’s novel in the illustration, the elucidation of the character. Throughout the novel - The Portrait of a Lady — we find him lavishing great care on the description of places, houses, gardens, art galleries etc.

“The Central Intelligence”

      James also believed in the existence of ‘the central intelligence”. This is to say that how the plot is reported is often as important as. the plot itself. This point of view character or “the central intelligence” always presents a creative sense and it is his consciousness, which colors the whole novel. To discover who is this “Central intelligence” is the essence of a careful reading of James.

Pictorial and the Dramatic Method

      James also experimented in the field of drama-writing though he gave it quite early. But perhaps his love for drama saturated his consciousness and very often chapters in the novel resemble scenes of a play. We sometimes can see him carefully setting the stage, then introducing the character, then the events take place and all this is presented with dramatic vividness. James doesn’t tell the reader what happens; he shows. According to Percy Lubbock; all great fiction alters between the ‘pictorial’ or the representative and the ‘dramatic’ methods. Same is true of James’s novels. The details are never less important in the novel but moments of inner thought or ‘meditative vigil’ shine in their own way. Descriptions of different houses and gardens are examples of pictorial method. Isabel’s midnight ‘meditative vigil’, Madame Merle’s looking at the chipped cup and wondering what her life had been, Madame Merle's and Isabel’s last meeting in the convent are some of the telling examples of the dramatic method of James.

Freedom must be for the Creative Artist

      Despite his radical views and ideas, James could feel the need for freedom for a creative artist. Hard and fast rules and lack of freedom can shadow the beauty of a work of art. James emphasizes in his essay on Maupassant: “Hard and fast rules have surely saved their time, and will in the nature of the case never strike an energetic talent as anything but arbitrary. A healthy, living and growing art, full of curiosity and fond of exercise, has an indefeasible mistrust of rigid prohibitions. Let us then leave this magnificent art of the novelist to itself, and its perfect freedom, in the faith that one example is as good as another, and that our fiction will always be decent enough if it be sufficiently general”.

      In the due course of time James’s theories of fiction come to influence the critics and writers quite deeply.

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