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The Continuum of Consciousness

Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James’s Novels


Jennifer Eimers

The Continuum of Consciousness: Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James’s Novels examines the transformative experience of art in James’s fiction. In a 1915 letter to H. G. Wells, James declares, «It is art that makes life.» This book traces the rich implications of this claim. For James, viewing art transformed the self. Many of his contemporaries, including his famous older brother, William, were deeply interested in the study of perception and individual consciousness. James’s fictional use of art reflects these philosophical discussions. Although much valuable scholarship has been devoted to visual art in James’s fiction, the guiding role it often plays in his characters’ experiences receives fuller exploration in this book. A prolonged look at visual art and consciousness through the lens of nineteenth-century British aestheticism reveals intriguing connections and character responses. By highlighting and analyzing his representations of aesthetic consciousness in four novels at specific moments (such as Basil Ransom’s and Verena Tarrant’s contrasting responses to Harvard’s Memorial Hall in The Bostonians and Milly Theale’s identification with a Bronzino painting in The Wings of the Dove), this book ultimately explores the idea that for James art represents «every conscious human activity», as Wells replied to James.


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CHAPTER THREE: (Re)presenting Miriam Rooth in The Tragic Muse 63


Chapter Three (Re)presenting Miriam Rooth in The Tragic Muse Basil Ransom sways Verena Tarrant away from the stage before the Boston debut that would have altered her life forever; in The Tragic Muse (1890) Peter Sherringham fails to have the same effect on Miriam Rooth, who scorns his proposal that she abandon her acting career in order to marry him. Though opposites in this respect, both women are talented artist figures who occupy central positions in their respective novels. Despite the prominent position of these women in the narratives, however, their thoughts are not directly re- vealed. Instead, readers must approach Miriam and Verena as objects d’art through other revealed consciousnesses. In the 1908 Preface to The Tragic Muse, James explains, “I never ‘go behind’ Miriam; only poor Sherringham goes, a great deal, and Nick Dormer goes a little, and the author, while they so waste wonderment, goes behind them” (9). This narrative technique forces readers to view Miriam, like Verena, from the consciousnesses of the “reflec- tors,” or other characters, who surround her.1 Concealing Miriam’s thoughts, does not mean, however, that she is inac- cessible or that her consciousness is unworthy of transparency, as most schol- arship suggests. S. Gorley Putt, for example, calls Miriam a “comparatively slight character” (209), and Alan Bellringer, perhaps her harshest critic, writes that “Obviously her mind is too undeveloped and second-hand to serve as one of James’s fine ‘registers or “reflectors”’ of experience. She is not, unlike Isabel Archer in The...

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