Ambiguity as a positive value : The golden bowl by Henry James

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Susan Andress Singh (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Donald Darnell

Abstract: The Golden Bowl by Henry James has elicited sharply divergent critical reaction, and virtually every modern critic of the book has his unique interpretation which he feels explains the novel. Yet most of these interpretations leave the reader who really wishes to get at the heart of the novel dissatisfied, for most of them fail to take into account the whole of the book, only working out various sections of it. The key which I believe unlocks the book in its entirety is the concept of ambiguity, which I define as the intermingling of the good and the bad, the selfishness and the unselfishness, within each of the four major characters and their actions and thoughts. Maggie, Adam, Charlotte, and the Prince, each have their greedy and generous facets, their pure and impure motivations, so that we can neither totally admire nor totally dislike any of them, nor can we designate any of them the conventional hero or villain of the novel. A second type of ambiguity in the novel, which is less pervasive but equally effective, is the concept of unknowability—that is, life is so complex that we cannot know how it will turn out, or even fully know or understand individual actions or motivations. This type of ambiguity is illustrated primarily by the character of Adam Verver, whose motivations we do not and cannot know, and whom consequently we cannot judge. This type of ambiguity is also evident in the ending of the novel, which leaves us entirely uncertain as to what future actions and what chances of happiness are implied for the characters.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 1971
James, Henry, $d 1843-1916 $x Criticism and interpretation
James, Henry, $d 1843-1916. $t Golden bowl

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