The Realism of Henry James

Though Henry James (1843–1916) was an American novelist, he saw the word “American” as embracing a certain cultural openness, or in his words, a “fusion and synthesis of the various National tendencies of the world.”1 The experience underlying James’ creative and critical work was international in scope. During his childhood he had spent some years in Europe; in later life he moved to London, often visiting Italy and France. Some of his best-known novels explore intercultural connections; these include The American (1877), The Europeans (1878), Daisy Miller (1879), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). He was influenced by the European as well as American Romantics, and was acquainted with the so-called realist and naturalist writers such as William Dean Howells, Gustave Flaubert, and Émile Zola. His literary-critical views were influenced by Goethe, Matthew Arnold, and Sainte- Beuve. From these writers he acquired the idea of critical “disinterestedness,” which he saw as effecting a mediation between history and philosophy (his brother was the pragmatist philosopher William James), since criticism deals with both ideas and facts. James’ own influence spanned both sides of the Atlantic, extending to figures such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.


It is in his essay The Art of Fiction (1884) that James most succinctly expressed his critical principles as well as a justification of his novelistic endeavor. The motivation of his essay is threefold. Firstly, he is combating what he takes to be a general reluctance to view the novel as a genuine art form. His text was written in part as a direct response to a lecture and pamphlet of the same title by the novelist and critic Walter Besant. James is concerned to establish the novel as a serious art form rather than as merely an amusing or escapist pastime. Secondly, while he applauds Besant’s attempt to foster this serious treatment of fiction, he disputes Besant’s assumptions that rules can be somehow prescribed for fiction. James’ central claim is that the novelist and the novel must be free. Finally, James is highly conscious of a puritanical environment which views art as having an injurious effect, and as opposed to morality, amusement, or instruction. Hence, for James, novelistic freedom entails also a liberation from moral and educational requirements and constraints.

While James’ central thesis is that the novel must be free, its freedom is first worked out in relation to the kind of novelistic realism on which James insists: “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life . . . as the picture is reality, so the novel is history” (166–167). In attempting to represent life, the novelist’s task is analogous with that of the painter; and in searching for truth, the novelistic art is analogous with philosophy as well as history. This “double analogy,” says James, “is a magnificent heritage” (167).

James suggests as a broad definition of the genre that the novel is “a personal, a direct impression of life,” and it is successful inasmuch as it reveals a particular and unique mind (170). Hence, the procedure of artistic realism cannot be prescribed. He is effectively disputing Besant’s claim that the “laws of fiction may be laid down and taught with . . . precision and exactness” (170). Moreover, the enterprise of realism is vastly complex. The writer should indeed possess “a sense of reality” but “reality has a myriad forms” and cannot be encompassed within some formula (171). The realism advocated by James seems to consist not, then, in passive imitation but in producing “the illusion of life” (173).

It is equally inconclusive and inexact, says James, to ask the novelist to write from experience. Like reality, experience is a complex concept. Experience “is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness . . . It is the very atmosphere of the mind” (172). A mere glimpse of a situation can afford a perspicacious novelist an entire perspective based on deep insight. Interestingly, James’ definition of “experience” reads like a reformulation of the definition of “imagination” by Romantics such as Coleridge. James states that the “power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience” (172). Whereas, for Coleridge, imagination was a power rooted in symbolism, a power to unite general and particular, James’ notion of experience as a “gift” is rooted in metonymy, a power essentially of judging the whole from the part. No longer is there some vast symbolic correspondence implied between word and reality; but the world is still considered to be ordered enough to be read in a coherent manner, for the entirety to be able to manifest itself in any particular partial expression. Modernist writers will be deprived of even this metonymic satisfaction. Indeed, James identifies the very freedom of the novel with its potential for realistic – which for him might well read “metonymic” – correspondence: the novel has a “large, free character of an immense and exquisite correspondence with life” (179). Notwithstanding the complex nature of both reality and experience, James, reminding us of his earlier affirmation, states that “the air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel – the merit on which all its other merits (including that conscious moral purpose of which Mr. Besant speaks) helplessly and submissively depends. If it be not there they are all as nothing” (173). The choice of words here is telling: all other factors, including any moral purpose, are erected on the enabling foundation of realism.

Owing to the deeply personal nature of experience, as well as its potential breadth and complexity, a novelist cannot be taught how to express reality. An important part of the freedom James seeks for the novelist consists in the liberty to experiment. Form is not achieved in any a priori fashion; it is something that undergoes continual modification through experience of reality (169, 171). The novel must also be free in its choice of theme and subject matter: the province of art, says James, is all life, not only those elements which are beautiful or noble (178). In all art, says James, one becomes “conscious of an immense increase – a kind of revelation – of freedom . . . the province of art is all life, all feeling, all observation, all vision . . . it is all experience.” As such, nothing can be forbidden for the novelist, nothing can be out of bounds (177–178). James suggests that the foremost capacity of the novelist must be that of “receiving straight impressions” (178). Fiction must catch “the strange irregular rhythm of life . . . without rearrangement” so that “we feel that we are touching the truth” (177). The implication here seems to be that the novelist accurately records “straight” impressions, without somehow distorting them; yet James also concedes that “Art is essentially selection, but it is a selection whose main care is to be typical, to be inclusive” (177). There seems to be a discrepancy between saying, on the one hand, that the novel records life without distortion, and, on the other hand, acknowledging that this record is inevitably subjective, penned from merely one of “innumerable points of view,” from a perspective which is in fact unique. James’ position might be seen as expressing a precarious balance in the historical transition between classical and modern realism. A vestige of Aristotelian realism persists in James’ view that it is still possible to speak of the “typically” human; and a foreshadowing of modernistic subjectivism is pronounced in his equal acceptance that the novelistic vision must be individual and unique. The two factors appear to be unreconciled in James’ text.

Finally, James argues against Besant’s claim that the novel must have a “conscious moral purpose”; the novel, says James, should be free of moral and other obligations. His reasoning is apparently simple: “questions of art are questions . . . of execution; questions of morality are quite another affair.” If art has a purpose, that purpose is artistic: it must aim at perfection (181). James acknowledges that the moral sense and the artistic sense are in one point very closely allied, namely in their conviction that “the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer. In proportion as that intelligence is fine will the novel, the picture, the statue partake of the substance of beauty and truth. To be constituted of such elements is, to my vision, to have purpose enough” (181). Again, for all of his insistence on realism, the emphasis is here once more deflected toward subjectivity, to the mind and ability of the novelist: it is this subjectivity that the novel most profoundly expresses. Ironically, just at this point where James’ conception of the novel points toward modernism, in terms of both its subjective grounding and its subordination of morality to aesthetic purpose, he has recourse to the ancient Aristotelian category of substance, and to the Platonic identification of beauty and truth, together with the Platonic notion of “partaking” as the means whereby earthly beauty is realized through invocation of a transcendent realm.


1. Letter to T. S. Perry, September 20, 1867, quoted in the introduction to Henry James, The Art of Criticism, ed. William Veeder and Susan M. Griffin (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 1. Hereafter page citations from this volume are given in the text.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Realism

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