Turn Life into a Great Jamesian Novel

Nolte, Beckinsale in "The Golden Bowl"

Nolte, Beckinsale in “The Golden Bowl”

In response to last week’s post on whether literature makes us more moral, a colleague in our philosophy department, Barrett Emerick, sent me a superb essay entitled “Finely Aware and Richly Responsible”: Moral Attention and the Moral Task of Literature.” Although written by philosopher Martha Nussbaum for a philosophy journal, the essay is the kind of interpretation that more literary scholars should engage in.

Nussbaum draws on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl to make several profound points about the relationship of literature to ethical behavior. Nussbaum is focused on how to live well—this is our ethical challenge—and to that end she sees parallels between the moral imagination and the creative imagination. She finds novels to be “the most appropriate articulation” of moral attention and moral vision. Or putting it slightly differently, she claims that a novel itself can be a work of moral achievement. The novels of Henry James, she believes, are particularly good exemplars of moral philosophy at work.

But Nussbaum doesn’t stop there. She says that, in the very process of reading Henry James, we exercise our own moral imaginations, which we can then apply towards our behavior in the world. A well-lived life, Nussbaum says, is like a work of literary art.

These are exciting but dense claims so here’s my attempt to unpack them. Nussbaum focuses on the point in The Golden Bowl where Adam must let his daughter Maggie go so that she can marry the man that she loves. We all recognize how emotionally fraught such a situation is since fathers frequently want to hold on to their daughters and daughters frequently feel guilty about leaving their fathers. Nussbaum is dazzled by Adam’s sensitivity and delicacy as he sacrifices his desires without imposing an emotional burden on Maggie.

Although, as Nussbaum notes several times, no paraphrase can begin to do justice to how well James handles the separation, here’s a sampling of her attempt to capture James’ moral complexity:

This daughter and this father must give one another up. Before this “they had, after all, whatever happened, always and ever each other…to do exactly what they would with: a provision full of possibilities.” But not all possibilities are, in fact, compatible with this provision. He must let her go, loving her, so that she can go live with her husband as a real wife; loving him, she must discover a way to let him go as a “great and high” man and not a failure, his dignity intact. In the “golden air” of these “massed Kentish woods” they “beat against the wind” and “cross the bar”: they reach, through a mutual and sustained moral effort, a resolution and an end. It is moreover (in this Tennysonian vision) their confrontation with death: her acceptance of the death of her own childhood and an all-enveloping love (her movement out of Eden into a place of life and death); his acceptance of a life that will be from now on, without her, a place of death. She bearing the guilt that her birth as a woman has killed him; he “offering himself, pressing himself upon her as a sacrifice—he had read his way so into her best possibility.” It is a reasonable place for us to begin our investigation; for the acts to be recorded can be said to be paradigmatic of the moral: his sacrifice, her preservation of his dignity, his recognition of her separate and autonomous life.

James articulates the intricacies so expertly that we as readers are challenged to make fine ethical distinctions. As we work through James’ sensibilities, we ourselves become more sensitive people. By capturing the complexity of the moral situation, The Golden Bowl prompts readers to exercise their moral faculties. Here’s Nussbaum again:

For (as James frequently reminds us by his use of the author/reader “we”) our own attention to his characters will itself, if we read well, be a high case of moral attention. “Participants by a fond attention” (Art of the Novel) in the lives and dilemmas of his participants, we engage with them in a loving scrutiny of appearances. We actively care for their particularity and we strain to be people on whom none of their subtleties are lost, in intellect and feeling. So if James is right about what moral attention is, then he can fairly claim that a novel such as this one not only shows it better than an abstract treatise, it also elicits it. It calls forth our “active sense of life,” which is our moral faculty. The characters’ “emotions, their stirred intelligence, their moral consciousness, become thus, by sufficiently charmed perusal, our own very adventure” (Art of the Novel). More: the novel guarantees by its fictionality that we will be free of jealous possessiveness and “vulgar heat” toward its characters. So it offers us, by the very fact that it is a novel, training in a tender and loving objectivity that we can also cultivate in life.

As we read The Golden Bowl—if we read it sensitively and intelligently—we are developing skills that we can apply to our own relationships, which often seem hopelessly muddled. Think of how much baggage we bring into every personal encounter as you read this James passage, which Nussbaum quotes to open her article:

The effort to really see and to really represent is no idle business in face of the constant force that makes for muddlement.

In real life, to be sure, we don’t often display Adam’s sensitivity in fraught emotional situations where things seem pretty much muddled. For that matter, Henry James didn’t always demonstrate sensitivity in his own relationships. But just as he tapped into his bigger self to write The Golden Bowl, so we can get in touch with our bigger selves as we work through great novels, and we can become bigger people if we apply what we have learned from the experience. Our lives can become our own works of art.

If we work hard enough, we may even produce a masterpiece.

This entry was posted in James (Henry) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete