My grad school friend Lubna nailed the experience of reading Henry James for me: "I'm waiting for something to happen; I'm waiting for something to happen; oh my god, it happened!; wait what happened?" In the big fight between James and H. G. Wells (once good friends, then bitter enemies), I often find myself more on the Wells side, arguing that literature should be for something. As Wells put it in his satire Boon:
[A James novel] is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. . . .At the same time, I can understand why Henry James has become so beloved of literary critics and professors, many of whom I respect. He has a Jesuitical eye for casuistry, which is a fancy way of saying that he puts his character into interesting moral situations. For those who have a puzzly-mind, there's something fun about unpacking his sentences. And for some, there's the supreme pleasure of ambiguity, which is the final position where many--though not all--of his stories end: with a situation where the unknowable greatly outweighs the knowable.
Take "Paste," for instance. At first it seems like a pretty simple inversion of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace"; in that story, a woman borrows and loses a pearl necklace and then replaces it after much exhausting work, only to learn at the end that the original was a cheap fake. So in James's story, a death in the family reveals a heap of costume jewelry from the dead woman's time as an actress, but wait--are these pearls real even though they're mixed in with fakes? And if they're real does that mean that dear old dead (step-)mom was involved in some hanky-panky as an actress?
(For another version of this story, check out Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind," where the detective goes to hunt down a necklace of real pearls given by a woman's pre-marriage sweetheart; the pearls turn out to be fakes and the lost love turns out to be just another four-flusher, but to protect his memory and the old woman's happiness, the detective returns fakes and says that the original (also fakes) must've been sold.)
But "Paste" isn't just an inversion of de Maupassant, it's also James through and through. By which I mean that almost no sentence gets told straight through, but instead is subject to emendation and qualification at the same time. Reading James is often like reading a gloss on the material that you're reading at the same time. So:
The pair of mourners, sufficiently stricken, were in the garden of the vicarage together, before luncheon, waiting to be summoned to that meal, and Arthur Prime had still in his face the intention, she was moved to call it rather than the expression, of feeling something or other.Once you read that once or twice, the meaning becomes clear and you could almost direct this scene in a movie: "Okay, you mourners, you stand here and remember that you're sad and you're also waiting for lunch; you Arthur Prime, give me a restrained bit of some feeling." Once you read it three or four times, you start to get some of the nuance: what does it mean for mourners to be "sufficiently stricken" and also waiting for lunch?
James is one of those POV masters who tends to filter the story through a particular character's mind, much like Austen would use a character to filter the story. Austen tends to use that for irony, whereas (I think) James uses it more for uncertainty. What feeling does Arthur Prime have about the death of his dad and step-mom? "Something or other." How clear is that feeling on his face? Our POV character would call it the intention rather than the expression. Which leads us to our big question: Who is she? What does she really know about this story?
And that's what this story is really about, the ability to know and tell a story. Our main character--a poor cousin working as a governess--turns over the story of her step-aunt's time as an actress; she looks to the material history to tell a story: "There was something in the old gewgaws that spoke to her, and she continued to turn them over." (Pearls and stories are like rocks: you turn them over to see the truth underneath.)
And she's not the only one who assigns to material objects the ability to tell a story. The governess shows the pearls to her employer's visitor for use in a tableaux vivant because "Our jewels, for historic scenes, don't tell--the real thing falls short" (my emphasis). And when this woman--Mrs. Guy (de Maupassant is understood)--sees the pearls, she wants them: "There's a special charm in them--I don't know what it is: they tell so their history" (my emphasis).
So we have all this telling, but at the end, we don't really learn the story. Our POV character ends up wondering if the pearls were really real; what that would say about her step-aunt; whether her cousin screwed her over by not admitting the pearls were real AND also selling them; whether Mrs. Guy is lying to her about buying them from a shop; etc. The story begins in confusion as unknown characters talk to each other about something we don't really know; and it ends in confusion as we know all the characters' surfaces, but not what's underneath.
Or let's look at a simple line of James's as a sign of the uncertainty here:
It was the sharp selfish pressure of this that really, on the spot, determined the girl...Wait, determined her to do what? James could easily tell us some of what goes in these characters' interiors, but like the pearls, the characters remain somewhat opaque.