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  • The Cost of Feeling: Emotional Injury in Henry James’s The Golden Bowl
  • Jennifer Travis (bio)

“It’s always a question of doing the best for one’s self without injury to others.”

—Henry James, The Golden Bowl

When Maggie Verver presents Prince Amerigo with the narrative of her purchase of the golden bowl in Henry James’s novel by that title, she is “ashamed” to say the price she has paid for the fragments that lay on the floor (444). Indeed, it is the high price she paid and the gift she was to make of it to her father that “worked” on the proprietor of the shop, leading him to seek Maggie out to return to her a portion of her payment. “What had perhaps most moved him,” Maggie recalls, “was the thought that she ignorantly should have gone in for a thing not good enough for other buyers” (462), particularly buyers with whom she herself, it is later learned by the shopkeeper, is intimate. The shopkeeper’s exposure of the flaw in Maggie’s pursuit is the novel’s structural and symbolic center, and like the flaw in the bowl itself, it invites the display of what the characters in the first half of the novel have labored so hard to deny: the apparatus of injury at work in the novel. James himself painstakingly describes the Prince and Charlotte [End Page 837] as costly items within this structure of injury because, we learn, for father and daughter the prevention of injury to each other is worth any expense. Indeed, readers of the novel from F. O. Matthiessen to Jean-Christophe Agnew have fully documented Maggie’s and Adam’s “collecting” and, in turn, “aestheticizing” of their prospective spouses; yet this moment with the shopkeeper exposes the fallibility of Maggie’s aesthetic. Though Maggie is unable to see the crack in the crystal, the damage that is already in the bowl will dictate the rupture of what is perhaps the novel’s most delicate provision: the Ververs’ design of not “hurting.” It is the moments prior to the smashing of the bowl that break both the aesthetic condition (the idea that the Ververs are consummate collectors) and the anesthetic condition (the corresponding belief that what accompanies flawless beauty is freedom from pain). The shopkeeper’s revelation to Maggie of the flaw in the bowl discloses the flaw in her own pursuit.

Although the shopkeeper’s gesture of goodwill certainly humbles Maggie’s aesthetic claim, he does substantiate her greater intimation. The shopkeeper is “moved” by Maggie (462); indeed, he feels enough to provide unknowing evidence justifying her suspicion that there is an undetected flaw in her own design. The value of the bowl comes to rest not in its price but in the value of its “witness”; as Maggie says, “‘that cup there has turned witness—by the most wonderful of chances’” (419). Although Maggie is shamed by her inability to calculate properly the aesthetic quality and monetary value of the object of her interest, it is its prior history, relayed by the shopkeeper, that for her justifies its price. The bowl for Maggie, as for Charlotte and Adam before her, is what Elaine Scarry would call “sentient.” 1 It becomes the extension of the characters’ feelings, contains unspoken knowledge, and holds the pleasure and the pain for each. For Amerigo, the bowl is an ill omen, and he rejects it as a gift at the novel’s start. Charlotte, however, recalls the bowl as an expansion and projection of her feelings for Amerigo: “I feel the day like a great gold cup that we must somehow drain together. I feel it, as you always make me feel everything, just as you do; so that I know ten miles off how you feel!” (263). For Maggie the bowl is neither a witness to passion nor, as she was to make of it, a gift, but a vessel that corroborates her suspicions. Indeed, as she less humbly claims, its value for her is in the secrets it has so surreptitiously hidden. What that cup turns witness to, therefore, is not solely contained by the fiscal [End Page 838] value...

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pp. 837-864
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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