A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James by Elizabeth Allen

By Elizabeth Allen

An entire size examine of James' use of the "American lady" heroine in his novels, from Daisy Miller via Isabel Archer to Milly Theale and Maggie Verver.

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It is only in certain of his central female characters that James focusses on the conflict between female consciousness of self and existence as sign, defined socially and linguistically. The novels establish women as signs, both in their reflection of social reality and in their use ofwomen as 'other', suggestive of interpretation, at the 44 A Woman's Place in the Novels of Henry James same time as they probe this sign function as problematic for the aware and conscious female individual. The heroines in whom this conflict is explored are young and usually unmarried, poised, as it were, on the threshold of social existence and limitation.

It's the paradise ofWomen, it's their Promised Land where they've been led up out of the Egyptian bondage of Europe. It's the home of their freedom. It is recognised in America that women have consciences and souls. 62 But the addition of the signification of moral authority or intellectual independence renders the disposal of the American girl as sign more complex. Howells attempted various solutions in his early novels. Lydia Blood in The Lady cif the Aroostook shames her lover Staniford into admiration of her individual and independent moral virtue, yet even this fairly conventional relationship of subject and moral arbiter can be sustained beyond courtship only by sending them to enjoy their married life out West- far and strange enough for the imagination to conceive some kind of moral equality in marriage which will not be too consistently undermined by the existence of woman as object in marriage.

4 However Hester's relationship to the A is interesting; she and the letter are shown as physically ('really') separable, yet functionally inseparable. She accepts the letter, her social existence is dependent on it, then she transforms and embroiders it. Her alienation from her society, caused by her sin, is never complete, and is mediated as well as expressed by the presence of the letter. Although her cottage is 'out of that sphere of social activity' 5 it is still visible, still linked to the village.

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