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Counting the Costs: The Infirmity of Art and The Golden Bowl by Mark Reynolds, University Research Corporation He handled it with tenderness, with ceremony, making a place for it on a small satin mat. "My Golden Bowl," he observed—and it sounded on his lips as if it said everything. (GBI 112) The golden bowl which gives its name to James's novel is not a golden bowl at all, but a gilt bowl. The master of the golden bowl (the Bloomsbury shopkeeper) is, then, not just a connoisseur of art, but a manipulator of fictions. His title "my golden bowl" is a fiction, a deceptively simple epithet that denies the actuality of the object to increase its value by masking its threatening fragility. Though James asserts that the great novelist must possess "that essence of reality" (AF 387), he agrees with Guy de Maupassant that is is "absurd to say that there is, for a novelist's use, only one reality of things" (GM 246). Within the novel , the different ways in which characters view the golden bowl, as object and as symbol , indicate their particular construct of "the real," the illusions by which they define and determine their experience. Thus, the importance of the distinction between a golden bowl and a gilt, crystal bowl—the former is the illusion which the shopkeeper seeks to convey, an image of the bowl distinct from (and, in a sense, superior to) the latter. The episode in which the bowl first appears dramatizes the ambiguous relationship between signs and interpretation in the novel. The merchant dramatically presents the beautiful object and trusts its charm "to produce its certain effect" (GBI 112), but he hedges when questioned about the exact nature of the bowl. Though he admits, when pressed, that the bowl is gilded crystal, not solid gold, he challenges Charlotte to find a flaw. If the crystal is not perfect, he promises , she will "never find any joint or any piecing" (GBI 113). Any flaws, however, are invisible beneath the golden surface that cannot be scraped off, having been put on "by some fine old worker and by some beautiful old process" (GBI 114). The shopkeeper 's guarded manner in discussing the bowl makes Charlotte suspicious that something must be wrong with it. Again, the dealer has a reply, "But if it's something you can't find out isn't that as good as if it were nothing?" (GBI 114). When Charlotte notes that one should avoid giving a present that contains a flaw, the shopkeeper's response is, again, curiously ambivalent: "Well, if one knows of it one has only to mention it. The good faith ... is always there" (GBI 115). The shopkeeper himself has never acknowledged any flaw in the bowl. Are we to accept his good faith? This scene describes the formation of a contract between a buyer and a seller and, as such, hinges on the questions of price and faith—two distinct, but related forms of worth. Laurence Holland compares the making of the marriages and the vending of the bowl as two forms of social contracts (341-49). However, the scene suggests another sort of contract as well— the one between artist and audience. According to James, the artist draws a circle around the endless possible relations that constitute any experience; the geometry of the writer creates a form by which the complexities inherent in experience appear to be "happily" contained (AN 5). Our faith in fiction depends, in part, on our acceptance of the price exacted for its effect.1 The terms of this "contract"—the questions of price and faith—are particularly relevant to the major source of critical controversy surrounding The Golden Bowl. The controversy stems from James making his heroine, Maggie Verver, a manipulator of fictions as conscious and apparently willful as her antagonist, Charlotte Stant. That critics should mistake Charlotte for the heroine suggests the risks James runs in the novel's analysis of the relationship between consciousness and the artistic process . Charlotte is in many ways the conVolume VI 15 Number 1 The Henry James Review Fall, 1984 summate artist. In volume one, she fashions for the Prince a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 15-26
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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