- Reviewed by
To the large body of criticism on James's female characters the first two of these books add feminist perspectives. Their theoretical assumptions are similar, but they cite different philosophical sources and differ greatly in the quality of their argumentation. Elizabeth Allen proceeds from the premise "that women actually learn their sense of self in a way different from men: that society demands of them always to be potential signs, carriers of meaning . . . simply because they are women." The result is a conflict "fundamental to the experience of the female self between being "other" and being "subject." Now to be both subject and object is of course part of the human condition, a burden of consciousness, and as a result men as well as women can feel oppressed by roles imposed by the world or even by themselves. But granting that the nature of our society has made "the schizophrenic recognition of yourself as object for yourself" a burden more peculiar to women, one must ask what follows when the critic approaches her author with this perception foremost in her mind. What follows here is first an intriguing opening: "the importance of central female consciousness in James's novels lies in the development of the conflict of the women as sign and as self," and in the body of her book Allen aims to fill in the details. A short chapter on The Scarlet Letter presents the transformation of Hester's badge of shame into a manifestation of her "conscious subjecthood" as the paradigm of a development in James's fiction from "Daisy Miller" to The Golden Bowl. Although "James found Hawthorne's symbolism too obvious and insistent," Allen tells us, figuratively speaking the scarlet letter is present in James. In his early work "we see the letter more clearly than the woman. . . . in the later novels . . . the conscious woman, reflecting and internally questioning . . . gradually emerges to be the subject of the text as much as the sign value she carries." A nice perception, or at least a new way of phrasing an old one. But what follows is disappointing because, instead of making theory her tool and servant, Allen is overwhelmed by it.
Her treatment of the fiction ("Daisy Miller," The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl) produces truisms obscured by jargon. Allen notes, for instance, that Winterbourne first sees Daisy Miller as a typical American girl ("How pretty they are!") and is puzzled by her freedoms. Nothing could be clearer. But now obfuscation overtakes James's limpid text. Here is [End Page 391] an example:
Daisy is what Winterbourne sees, it is up to him, the conscious subject, to accord Daisy some social place, some function as sign. Our attention is inevitably directed towards the tension between Daisy's signification as free and active, and her passive dependency on a subject, masculine response. Her freedom . . . is denied by a society which decrees that young girls do not exist for themselves, and by a fictional presentation as a blank surface, a reflection for the consciousness of Winterbourne.
. . . Once she is cut dead by everyone, she ceases to exist. . . . Daisy as self exists only as an objectification of selfhood for those already occupying a social position. . . .
The linking of Daisy's death by malaria to human causes, to social mal aria, is shrewd, but the cant obscures even the critic's own insights. And when one penetrates the verbiage of this passage, one discovers what seem to be protests not only against society's cruel snobbery or Winterbourne's wintry stupidity but against Daisy's feeling for Winterbourne ("her passive dependency on . . . masculine response") and apparently against James's "fictional presentation" for participating...