Friday, November 1, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 192: Henry James, A Problem (#116)

Henry James, "A Problem" (1868) from Henry James: Complete Stories 1864–1874:

Today, when Henry James is considered "The Master" and one of the high-water marks of American literature, it's nice to remember that he struggled to find his place in the market. (Also: that he struggled with constipation and other earthly ills.) Before he wrote his masterful novels, he wrote a bunch of things to pay the bills. The LoA page nicely includes both a contemporary comment by James on this kind of work--
I write little and only tales, which I think it likely I shall continue to manufacture in a hackish manner, for that which is bread. They cannot of necessity be very good; but they shall not be very bad.
--and also a comment from contemporary reader Moorfield Storey-- 
I have just finished a most delightfully trashy story in the Galaxy by my friend or acquaintance, Henry James. Just the sort of dish-water which suits one in June.
"Delightfully trashy"! What a great way to describe Henry James's work. (Also, I love that Storey can't decide whether James is a friend or acquaintance. Who hasn't been there? Especially with James.)

This story does have a certain melodramatic, soap opera aspect: a young wife on honeymoon gets her fortune told--she'll have a daughter who will die young. When she has a daughter who survives some childhood disease, the young wife mentions another fortune she got, which reminds the husband of a fortune he got once: both of them are supposed to marry twice.

Now, today, that wouldn't be news, but I guess back in the day, you'd only remarry if your first spouse died. Therefore it would be impossible for both husband and wife to remarry. These conflicting fortunes contribute to an admittedly stupid fight between them, which leads to their estrangement... until their daughter dies and the two of them come back together and are remarried.

Back in the day, that was maybe a fun way to get out of that loophole; but when I heard those conflicting fortunes I was just waiting for them to get remarried to each other. This may be personal bias, as I tend to enjoy the screwball comedies of remarriage, like The Awful Truth and The Lady Eve.

Even with that ending easily guessed, this is an interesting piece to read, for its Jamesian interest in psychology, such as the estranged wife's feelings on moving back in with her mother and thinking her husband is going around with other women:
She felt that deep satisfaction which comes upon the spirit when it has purchased contentment at the expense of reputation. There was now, at least, no falsehood in her life.
And then there are those moments when the narratorial voice will just come out and address the reader, admitting to us that
The reader will see that [young wife] Emma was a simple, unsophisticated person, and that her married life was likely to he made up of small joys and vexations
Now, I haven't read as much James as I pretend to have read, but that sort of address seems uncharacteristic of his later, novel-length works. But here's the question: is it because he became more interested in innuendo and ambiguity? Or simply because short stories give one less space to set up the characters?

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