- Saying “Nothing” and Meaning “Everything” in The Golden Bowl
I accounted for everything—and ‘everything’ had by this time become the most promising quantity . . .—James, preface to The Ambassadors
Henry James’s Short Story “Maud Evelyn” Ends with the promise of that most promising quantity, “everything.” The pledge comes from Lady Emma, who anticipates seeing relics of the deceased Maud Evelyn when she visits the Dedricks and says she will tell her friend all about it: “Next week I shall go with her—I shall see them at last. Tell you about them, you say? My dear man, everything” (CS 205). “Everything” is the story to come; it is Lady Emma’s assurance that she will divulge whatever it is she comes to know. In James’s hands, everything contains all—and nothing—at the same time. Increasingly in the late-phase writing, everything operates as a narrative punch line that is not exactly delivered. It stands for a consummate knowledge (encompassing all that matters, promising to fulfill and explain the text’s gaps) even as what the word explicitly stands for is not finally consummated within the text. Nobody ever says what everything has ambiguously or conspicuously referred to.
This relationship between everything and degrees of knowing can be seen in the way James uses other indefinite pronouns as well. He employs –thing and –body words such as everything, nothing, anything, anybody, somebody both to gesture toward a character’s knowledge of something and to calibrate the reader’s degree of being privy—privy to all the sightlines and spoken lines within the novel.1 These pronouns challenge the reader to interpret and construct the story above and beyond the initial level of significance that can be assigned to characters’ statements. [End Page 101] This challenge to the reader makes James’s late works as much stories about language as they are about the particular plots and people in them. The pronominal abstractions enable James to experiment with the physics of words within a given structure, whether that structure is dialogue or, more broadly, the novel form. One possible consequence of this wordplay is that the reader becomes involved in a textual education as he or she, in the course of reading, learns how to read the text’s designs, patterns, and lexicon. This education occurs in tandem with that of the characters, who are learning (or missing) their own lessons. The characters’ lessons are different from the reader’s, of course, but often center on the same crucial vocabulary (what does Fanny mean when she says “nothing”?) or the same telling object (what information comes with the golden bowl?).
The Golden Bowl is perhaps the climax of James’s orchestration of that group of “loose end” (Awkward 14) indefinite pronouns in dialogue, in concert with his focus on the cross-relations that can be written into a story (he theorizes these relations in his preface to The Awkward Age, a preface written not long after he completes The Golden Bowl). Usually, these abstract pronouns in James’s writing do not point to definitive referents, but instead are relational in how they refer: they mean in relationship to some other utterance, and by attending to that relationship the reader may begin to associate them with a particular quantity, entity, body, or frame. Such associations, however, are always on the verge of coming undone or shifting ground. In this regard, they are the ideal vocabulary for enabling the speech of James’s characters to simultaneously partake of the more confined, “conditioned relations” of the play while feeding the novel’s “twenty different ways” and “fifty excursions” (14). These –thing and –body words have the uncanny capacity to become specific and remain vague.
In James’s late prose, these pronouns in dialogue function poetically, and we can see them as James’s own, distinct version of the “constitutive speech” he attributes to Shakespeare—language which both builds and is built by the text. “Constitutive speech” amasses within the work of art as if from the ground up, or as if dropped down from another planet, James says (Literary 1211). The pronouns of The Golden Bowl are arguably constitutive...