Henry James's Critique of the Beautiful Life

By R.R. Reno

What the great modern author had to say about ethical responsibility and the dangers of excessive freedom.

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Henry James, one of the great figures of modern English literature, seems an unlikely source of political insight. In his early novels, published in the late 1800s, the overtly political dimension of man’s social and economic existence is hardly present; in the later novels, written just after the turn of the century, it is almost entirely absent. To be sure, midway through his career, James does indeed set some of his work firmly in the political and social movements of his day: The main characters in The Bostonians (1886), for example, are full of fervent views about the role of women in society, and the atmosphere of The Princess Casamassima (1886) is hot with revolutionary ardor. Yet careful readers are hard-pressed to know just what James thinks (or wishes his readers to think) about specific political ideas, and he never names—much less endorses—any particular ideology. As is so often the case in his fiction, the focus is almost wholly inward. James devotes his attention to the psychological effects of reformist ideals and revolutionary commitments rather than the larger social consequences of particular political philosophies. Thus, even when depicting the ideological dimension of our social experience, Henry James can seem an almost perversely apolitical writer.
But this impression is insufficient. True, James did not throw political convictions into story form. He was not the Harriet Beecher Stowe of the Gilded Age, nor was he an early instance of the politically committed author that was to come to prominence in the twentieth century. In fact, in his letters James regularly expressed his dislike for the distracting hum of political chatter, as well as the false urgency of the political passions enflamed during electoral seasons. He was, nonetheless, a careful student of the human condition. Perhaps more than any writer of his generation, he captured the remarkable complexity of man’s nature—a complexity that inevitably carries over into our political identities. Obviously, we vote our interests. In his novels, however, James helps us see that we also vote our dreams. For precisely this reason, the art of Henry James and his intensive focus on the interior lives of his characters offer a critical source of insight into the larger social and political forces that shape our existence.
This surprisingly rich potential for understanding can be found in two of his late novels in particular, The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904). Here the prose—extraordinarily dense, at times seemingly opaque—evokes one of the most contemporary dimensions of today’s political imagination: the dream of existential freedom, the belief that man can cultivate a sense of identity independently of outside determination and influence. In both works, the characters are attracted to an image of life in which they may feel and act as they please, unhindered by social conventions and other pressing moral demands. Yet into these finely wrought fictional worlds of relaxed boundaries James injects a moment of reactionary resistance. At crucial moments in both novels, the inflexible reality of moral truth overcomes fantasies of limitless possibility. The result is certainly not political in the ordinary sense of the term: The narratives remain scrupulously limited to the jewel-box parlor rooms of James’s imagination. Nonetheless, a careful, contemplative reading reveals a profound political dimension. The lure of unfettered inner freedom and the hard-edged, constraining force of moral truth depicted by James can help today’s readers see the clash of dreams that make the “culture wars” of contemporary political life so explosive and intractable.

R.R. Reno is a professor of theology at Creighton University and a senior editor at large of First Things.

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