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 woman" heroine in his novels, from Daisy Miller via Isabel Archer to Milly Theale and Maggie Verver.

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Sample text

In fact,J ames acknowledged later that the weakness of the book lay in the fact that the Bellegardes would not have rejected Newman's money-whatever they thought of America and commerce- and the only likelihood of their ditching him would have been in the appearance of a more valuable suitor. The tension between Newman and the Bellegardes, played out initially as a comedy of manners, and later as rather unconvincing melodrama, is essentially a reciprocal one. The Bellegardes do not seek to absorb or acquire Americanness in Newman, merely to resist its potential to acquire from them- the object of acquisition being feminine and fundamentally exchangeable as sign rather than as fixed value.

Her status as sign remained unchanged; as Harriet Martineau remarked, despite much indulgence the position of American women was really no better than in England. But it was the very obvious legal, social, and personal contradictions of the total submission of self in marriage for women that focussed the attention of those interested in the position of women at that time. Thus marriage becomes a paradigm for the relinquishing of the illusion of free subjecthood and for submission to social existence as other, as woman.

Newman can see in Claire the qualities he is looking for. Earlier, when he discusses her with her brother Valentin, Valentin says: You have seen her; you know what she is: tall, thin, light, imposing and gentle, half a grande dame and half an angel; a mixture of pride and humility, of the eagle and the dove. She looks like a statue which had failed as stone (p. I 02). The two follow it up with a bundle of labels: perfect, good, charitable, intelligent- which suggest that Claire is the everwomanly repository of values and qualities which can represent the culture and nature of its possessor: the Bellegrades' 'grande dame' or Newman's 'Western Prairie', Madame de Bellegarde's 'woman of conventions and proprieties' or Newman's 'ideal wife'.

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