Thursday, March 23, 2017

"The Tree of Knowledge" (1900)

Read story by Henry James online.

Just when I think I've figured out how to read Henry James, along comes a narrative that somehow stops me cold. For all its virtues—chiefly, it's funny, but also carefully constructed with its ends in sight—I found this mostly a slow-going hard-parsing affair. There's a sculptor, Morgan Mallow, known as "the Master," and his wife, his son, and his best friend, Peter Brench, who is the focus and primary point of view. The Master is highly lauded as a great talent, at least in the minds of himself and his family, but Brench does not think so. He keeps it to himself for the sake of their friendship, he genuinely likes Mallow, and also because he is in love with Mallow's wife. Not altogether the most sympathetic situation in the first place. There is some implication that the Master is neither as gifted nor as successful as he thinks himself, but his son and especially his wife are staunch supporters. Brench is godfather to the son and practically family himself. When the son decides to throw over a practical education in favor of pursuing his own talent, the rest of the household is delighted. Except for Brench, who feels it's his duty to warn him off. This leads to bruised feelings, ultimately propelling the young man to pursue his art in defiance. In many ways the story proceeds like situation comedy. Because no one speaks to anyone honestly and forthrightly, they are all husbanding their secrets. Toward the end it turns out to be the same secret all around. Relieved chuckles. First the son comes clean to Brench that he thinks his father is talentless and deluded. Later, it turns out Mrs. Mallow feels the same. They are all looking to protect the Master from the reality of his delusion. It becomes a complicated situation at that point, even as the story is ending, and requires further unpacking. Brench had thought he was sparing them all the pain, but the fact that the woman he loves was doing the same for the Master all along inevitably changes his view of her. She has been deceiving him, in a way, in much the same way he has been deceiving her, for the sake of the feelings of a deluded hack. In the end, it's unclear what Brench is going to make of it, or what he will do next. There's a suggestion he may no longer love Mrs. Mallow, but there's no suggestion the situation is going to change significantly, except they all know a little better where they stand now. Well, they all do except for the Master, who remains as beatifically self-satisfied as ever. That's a funny image, but it's a lot of work to get there.

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 17 pages

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine (Library of America)

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