Parenting in Henry James's Novels

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Henry James's work is not only a book about bad parenting, as it is not a book about relationships. It is about a fragmented and decadent society where normal values, such as caring for your child and offering her a loving home, become relative. This relativism of values leaves the character without a norm and without intrinsic knowledge about doing what is right.

Maisie's parents are not necessarily bad people in a complex meaning of the concept of "bad," just as Mrs. Wix, no matter how much the reader gets attached to her because of the way she adores Maisie, is not a sublimely good person. At least, despite developing interesting characters, James's objective is not to define good and bad and categorize his characters accordingly. I believe his goal is to see what the characters are doing and how they are behaving in a particular societal context, namely that of the end of the Victorian era.

Before developing this thesis and analyzing how Henry James develops character decadence in relation with the societal ambient through the use of blending the character's speech with the narration itself (Sethi, 2010), it is useful to look at how this technique is used throughout the book. One of the best examples is at the end of chapter 3, where Maisie is relating, in her thoughts, what had happened between Mamma and Miss Overmore, particularly the insults, Miss Overmore's private convictions, and particularly the "public opinion."

This paragraph (the very last of the chapter) shows how James is putting thoughts in Maisie's mind to (1) narrate (the reader understands here how Miss Overmore had a fight because of her relationship with Beale and how she was thrown out of the
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house by a mad Mamma/Ida), (2) show Maisie's own evaluations and (3) define character, in line with the proposed thesis of this paper.

It is also useful to briefly state the situation in Great Britain at the time the book was written. This was in 1897, and Queen Victoria had been reigning for 60 years, an entire generation. Everybody was aware that this reign would come to an end soon. It was the end of an era, of the Victorian era. Moral confusion is likely the right characteristic of this time. The moral confusion was, on one hand, driven by the new realities, including new currents in literature, arts, the apparition of the moving pictures, new technologies, including the automobile. On the other hand, the moral confusion was also a reaction to the end of an age that had defined many lives. The utter sense of fear likely led to moral confusion.

It is against this background that we need to picture the characters in James's work. Ida and Beale is an unraveling couple who share custody of their daughter Maisie. They each remarry, but, each of the new spouses the charming Sir Claude and the governess, Miss Overmore) start an affair with one another. Maisie eventually remains close to the adoring new governess, Mrs. Wix, rather than stay with the new couple Sir Claude/Miss Overmore.

From the very first chapters, the characters' decadence appears through Maisie's thoughts and through James's style and technique. In chapter 2, James writes that Maisie is the "little feathered shuttlecock they could fiercely keep flying between them" and that the parents "eventually embraced" a theory of Maisie's stupidity, as a result of her not being able to "take things in."

So, at this point, Ida and Beale appear…

Sources Used in Documents:


1. Sethi, Mira, (2010). Henry James's Most Affecting Portrait. Wall Street Journal

2. James, Henry, (1897), What Maisie Knew. The Project Gutenberg

3. French, Philip, (2013). What Maisie Knew -- review. The Guardian. On the Internet at Last retrieved on November 1, 2014

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