31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 23: “The Figure in the Carpet” by Henry James

May 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Major Stories & Essays

On its most obvious level, Henry James’s 1896 story “The Figure in the Carpet” is about hermeneutics – the interpretation of literary texts. James examines the subject of literary authority: where does it originate, who has access to it, and how is it discovered? The disputants in James’s story are the unnamed narrator, a critic for the literary magazine The Middle (the title of which may be seen as a jab at James’s assessment of where critics fall on the literary spectrum), and the celebrated novelist Hugh Vereker. The magazine’s editor, George Corvick, has assigned his friend and employee a review of Vereker’s newest novel, an assignment the narrator sees as a privilege and a challenge. A privilege, because the narrator is an admirer of Vereker’s work and has the opportunity to meet the great man at a dinner party the following weekend; he feels he will be better prepared to talk to the author should he have made “an acquaintance with his ‘last.'” A challenge, because Corvick makes a curious demand of the narrator with respect to the content of his review:

“Of course you’ll be all right, you know.” Seeing I was a trifle vague he added: “I mean you won’t be silly.”

“Silly – about Vereker! Why, what do I ever find him but awfully clever?”

“Well, what’s that but silly? What on earth does ‘awfully clever’ mean? For God’s sake try to get at him. Don’t let him suffer by our arrangement. Speak of him, you know, if you can, as I should have spoken of him.”

I wondered an instant. “You mean as far and away the biggest of the lot – that sort of thing?”

Corvick almost groaned. “Oh, you know, I don’t put them back to back that way; it’s the infancy of art! But he gives me a pleasure so rare; the sense of” – he mused a little – “something or other.”

I wondered again. “The sense, pray, of what?”

“My dear man, that’s just what I want you to say!”

Corvick’s sense of “something or other” in Vereker’s writing becomes the central mystery in the story. At the dinner the following Sunday, the critic is startled to hear Vereker dismiss his review as “the usual twaddle.” In conversation later, the author apologizes to his reviewer, in whom he says he does detect “a spice of intelligence,” but he remains frustrated by the inability of his readers to discern the central element that pervades all of his written output:

By my little point I mean – what shall I call it? – the particular thing I’ve written my books most for. Isn’t there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to achieve which he wouldn’t write at all, the very passion of his passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the flame of art burns most intensely? Well, it’s that!

Vereker’s explanation is in no way clearer than Corvick’s sense of “something or other,” but it sends the narrator off on a journey to discover the hidden meaning in the author’s work. This element, which Vereker refers to dismissively as a “little trick” and fulsomely as his “finest, fullest intention,” becomes associated in the narrator’s mind with “a complex figure in a Persian carpet,” something he begins to obsess over discovering.

His search proves fruitless, although Corvick, who has since decamped to India, does send a telegraph to his wife, Gwendolen, saying that he had discovered the solution to the mystery, a solution he communicates to her before he is killed in an accident on the highway. Gwendolen remarries but does not repeat Vereker’s secret to her new husband, a minor critic named Drayton Deane.

There are multiple layers here, unsurprisingly from James, who is arguably the subtlest English-language prose writer ever to put pen to paper. (John Banville considers James the greatest novelist in English, an assessment that Harold Bloom disputes, although even Bloom is forced to admit that “reading through Henry James’s twenty novels, you absorb so large a consciousness in prose narrative that in English only Dickens seems a true rival.”) The subtlety here arises in part out of the ambiguous nature of Vereker’s secret, which is never revealed, and what it says about the critical process. There is something presumptuous about the activity of criticism, James implies; he has Vereker compare critics to people who willfully invade their neighbours’ gardens.

James himself championed the author as the locus of meaning in a work, and thought that authorial privilege not only trumped any kind of critical exegesis, but that it was inherently incommunicable to others. In his essay, “The Art of Fiction,” James writes:

The execution belongs to the author alone; it is what is most personal to him, and we measure him by that. The advantage, the luxury, as well as the torment and responsibility of the novelist, is that there is no limit to what he may attempt as an executant – no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes. Here it is especially that he works, step by step, like his brother of the brush, of whom we may always say that he has painted his picture in a manner best known to himself. His manner is his secret, not necessarily a jealous one. He cannot disclose it as a general thing if he would; he would be at a loss to teach it to others. I say this with due recollection of having insisted on the community of method of the artist who paints a picture and the artist who writes a novel. The painter is able to teach the rudiments of his practice, and it is possible, from the study of good work (granted the aptitude), both to learn how to paint and to learn how to write. Yet it remains true, without injury to the rapprochement, that the literary artist would be obliged to say to his pupil much more than the other, “Ah, well, you must do it as you can!” It is a question of degree, a matter of delicacy. If there are exact sciences, there are also exact arts, and the grammar of painting is so much more definite that it makes the difference.

It is possible to see “The Figure in the Carpet” as a fictional working through of the ideas James was wrestling with in the paragraph above. Vereker’s insistence that he not explain to the narrator his “exquisite scheme” is based on the assumption that the explanation is there on the page for anyone willing to accept it: “What else have I done with every stroke of my pen? I’ve shouted my intention in his great blank face!” This, perhaps, is James’s ultimate bone of contention with the horde of critics – figures Vereker waves off as “little demons of subtlety” – who insist on wrenching meaning out of his, or any writer’s, work. What Vereker inserted into “every page and line and letter” was nothing less that his individual artistic vision, something that, in James’s words, cannot be disclosed as a general thing. Conversely, it is what James has referred to elsewhere as “the madness of art.”

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