- Reviewed by
With her elegant The Figure of Consciousness, Jill M. Kress makes a compelling contribution to the study of American literature. Kress proposes that reading turn-of-the-century scientific and literary texts enables us to "reevaluate the cultural narrative of consciousness and to reveal the crucial ways in which metaphor constructs each of its manifestations" (xi). Particularly innovative is Kress's treatment of the narrative representation of layered consciousness in American writers—a topic usually reserved for (Anglo) modernists (for example, Joyce, Conrad, Woolf). Kress shows us how, in the works of social scientists (Darwin, Lewes, Spencer, Wallace, William James), as well as fiction writers (Henry James, Edith Wharton), metaphors for the manifold structure of the mind surface in profoundly different ways. And yet, as her introductory chapter demonstrates, consistent among these writers is "the repeated attempt to understand questions about the mind through figurative representation, as well as a deep ambivalence regarding the multiplying tendency of words" (xi). Kress's interdisciplinary study allows us to recognize in the James brothers and Wharton shared metaphors for consciousness and thus to appreciate more deeply their engagements with modern philosophy, psychology, and social science.
Kress's second chapter examines William James's The Principles of Psychology alongside his "Does 'Consciousness' Exist," demonstrating the remarkable ways in which metaphor not only recurs in, but indeed governs James's arguments. As Kress notes, "though James constructs a series of metaphors out of which consciousness materializes, the structures come undone" (xii). Kress thus reveals the ways in which James consistently attempts to represent consciousness even while he questions its very existence.
Chapter 3 studies Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, reading its "metaphors of consciousness as they invent the inner life of a [End Page 744] character" (62), while chapter 4 discusses The Golden Bowl, arguing that in the later novel is embedded a tension between the rewards and the price of consciousness for James's female characters, highlighting the ways in which his fiction "complicates gender as a vehicle for personal identity" (xiv).
The last two chapters study Wharton's treatment, in The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, of "the contest between a defining interior life and a socially constructed self" (131). Kress shows Wharton immersing herself in not only Jamesian philosophy, but also the findings of social psychologists Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead. Kress also arranges a compelling dialogue between the fiction of Wharton and Henry James, arguing that Wharton's novels show characters identifying themselves through "social and cultural fixtures," while James's resist such identification (133). "Wharton wants to create a protective house for the self," explains Kress, "but the realization of such spaces becomes complicated, especially for the women in her stories. The unaccompanied self, the self in communion with itself, becomes an impossible fantasy . . . because this society requires that women provide a social center for life precisely through their public display" (145). Kress's inspired discussion of Lily Bart's tableau vivant nicely illustrates this point.
Kress's final chapter elucidates Wharton's argument, in The Age of Innocence, that the "conscious self" comes at a cost and "it is precisely the negotiations between a self-contained existence and a profound awareness of the social implications of identity where we find Wharton's notions of consciousness evolving" (165). Throughout her discussion of Wharton, Kress draws poignant parallels between Wharton's interior decorating manual, The Decoration of Houses, and her best-known New York novels. Especially exciting is the distinction she draws between the worlds of Lily Bart and Newland Archer: "If The House of Mirth . . . shows a 'closed self,'" Kress argues, then The Age of Innocence throws those doors open (167).
Kress posits that from William James we acquire "the tools to construct the self and the subsequent claim continually to remake it" (59). Kress in turn provides the tools to understand these writers in productive new ways and to unpack their sophisticated engagements with modern philosophies of consciousness. What is more, Kress's...