Matthew Flaherty, “Henry James at the Ethical Turn: Vivification and Ironization in The Ambassadors” (pp. 366–393)
Taking its cue from recent work by Dorothy J. Hale, this paper begins by exploring the extent to which Levinasian, deconstructive, and Aristotelian critical approaches have associated Henry James’s fiction, and the ethical import of reading literature more broadly, with an array of related values including particularity, impulsiveness, and indeterminacy. Seeking to complicate this characterization of the ethical effects of Jamesian fiction, this paper emphasizes the debt of The Ambassadors (1903) to a form of dialectical narration that privileges an array of antithetical values including abstraction, analysis, and understanding. Attending in particular to the novel’s opposition between Lambert Strether’s imagination and Maria Gostrey’s discrimination, I argue that The Ambassadors uses perspectival relations between characters to clarify and challenge the judgments of its characters and, by extension, its readers. By building dialectical oppositions like these into his novels, James does not disrupt structures of thought with immediate feeling so much as he shapes immediate feelings into structures of thought. The paper makes the case that it is through juxtaposition to characters like Maria that the full significance of Strether’s feeling—that is, the perspective of value that motivates his practice—can be grasped by readers seeking to refine their own ethical thinking. By emphasizing how James’s fiction facilitates thoughts that attend to the whole, rather than just provoking feelings that attend to the particular, the paper seeks to expand both received understandings of James’s fiction and of ethical approaches to literary criticism more broadly.
- © 2014 by The Regents of the University of California