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Narration and Nurture in What Maisie Knew
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Narration and Nurture in What Maisie Knew by Merla WoIk, Michigan State University Despite the amount of critical attention paid to What Maisie Knew, the crucial issue of the narrator and his interaction with the novel's protagonist has been virtually ignored. Instead, readers have seemed most interested in what is least complex in Maisie: in defining character, establishing motivation, and examining the resulting relationships. Yet characterization is weak in this work. Ida and Beale are mere stereotypes; Mrs. Beale is hardly less so; Sir Claude and Mrs. Wix, if more rounded , are essentially simple; and Maisie herself encourages so much controversy primarily because the claim James makes for her—that she remains resilient and decent amidst neglect and sordidness—verges on the unbelievable.1 Recently, critical discussion has addressed more compelling issues such as the epistemological questions raised by the novel. Questioning the sources of knowledge is central to the exercise of the artistic imagination for James, and it is for this subject that the relationship between Maisie and the narrator has special significance. Maisie is one of those Jamesian protagonists endowed with the artistic sensibility of her creator. Like the experience of the similarly endowed Hyacinth Robinson , Maisie's experience of the world parallels that of James's artist figures: her sensitivity to her surroundings, her growing powers of perception, her ever-increasing ability to observe and to interpret are salient features of her existence as they are of James's artists. This temperament makes her a particularly keen register of the emotional excesses of her childhood as weU as particularly vulnerable to the dangers . Yet, for aU the uniqueness of Maisie's sensibility and the eccentricities of her situation, James creates his character with an intuitive understanding of the psychic düemma common to any growing child. The growth of the self as it emerges from the state of psychological symbiosis with the mother is influenced by its ability emotionally to separate from, while maintaining a relation with, that which is Other. The adaption each individual makes to the process of separation shapes his identity. Psychically, a space must be created that aUows the self a sense of freedom, without an accompanying fear of abandonment, and a feeling of protection that does not threaten with emotional suffocation . Too great a separation or too close a fusion can inhibit and distort the growth of the self. The instability of Maisie's situation clearly stems from a failure in the maternal care necessary to provide the conditions for the healthy growth of an individual. Her early experience is one of alternately being violently separated from the potential sources of protection or being overwhelmed by them. Occasionally in the experience James creates for Maisie, the inner drama known as self-other boundary conflicts takes on frightening literal manifestations . For despite having "two fathers, two mothers, and two homes, six protections in all," Maisie worries that "she shouldn't know 'wherever' to go." It remains a real possibility that "with all these resources Maisie was to be on the streets" (WM 99,100). And streets are the place of death in Maisie; it is there that little Clara Matilda lost her life, "knocked down and crushed by the crueUest of hansoms" (WM 24). I shall begin my discussion by defining this maternal faüure, particularly in terms of boundary conflicts, noting James's development of the issues in relation to Maisie's various mothers—Mrs. Beale, Mrs. Wix, Ida herself, and Sir Claude. I shaU then address the subject of the narrator's relationship with Maisie, demonstrating his nurturing function in the novel. Finally, I shaU conclude by suggesting what James sees as the implications of such a relationship for the artistic sensibility. Volume IV 196 Number 3 The Henry James Review Spring, 1983 I From the first, James presents Maisie's predicament as one that is dominated by a fear of separation: "She had left behind her the time when she had no desires to meet, none at least save Moddle's, who, in Kensington Gardens, was always on the bench when she came back to see if she had been playing too far. Moddle's desire was merely that...