Sunday, February 24, 2019

"The Story in It" (1902)

Skeptics of modern or postmodern self-consciousness are likely well advised to approach this odd story with caution. It's short but packed tight with Henry James's themes and preoccupations, which seemed to be shading inevitably more and more toward a darker cynicism in these later pieces from the turn of the century. Mrs. Maud Blessingbourne, a widow, is a house guest of Mrs. Dyott. Mrs. Dyott is having an affair with Colonel Voyt, which Maud does not know—we learn of it ourselves only in a comical scene of a few compact sentences. Maud, who likes to read romance novels from France, has a crush on Colonel Voyt, who is married in addition to his dalliance with Mrs. Dyott. When we see the three together, they discuss French novels, comparing them to English or American. Colonel Voyt wants to press the point that a woman making bad decisions is actually the essence of the romance, suggesting he is talking about not just sexual experience, but availability, knowingness, volition. The innocent lamb Maud maintains there is drama and tension in the story of a woman maintaining her virtue. This is how we go with James. The language and presentation are so dense and allusive in this story you have to read it through once just to figure out the basic situation. Then you can go back to start teasing out and unpacking all these subtleties going on. In a sense, that's one thumbnail definition of postmodernism—you can't look at anything just once, yet paradoxically you have to absorb the whole thing all at once, before you can make out the intricate pieces for what they are. And this is a reasonably short story—18 pages, albeit with "chapters." As Maud defends her ideas about romance and the virtuous woman, she is acting it out in her life at the same time. As Mrs. Dyott and Colonel Voyt argue their cases for romance lying in the woman and/or both of the lovers doing wrong, they are doing the same. That makes it an argument everyone gets to win. And in turn that makes this story a very neat trick, well done.

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 18 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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