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  • The Possibility of Realism: “The Figure in the Carpet” and Hawthorne’s Intertext
  • Raymond J. Wilson III

Henry James’s propensity for using significant names generates irony when placed next to the critical use of his story “The Figure in the Carpet.” 1 The story has become a paradigm for theories that hold that literature never tells the truth, even that “truth” is a meaningless concept; this produces irony when we notice that James uses the root vere, Latin for “truth,” in the name of his main character. 2 Does Vereker mean “vere-care,” a person who cares about truth? The irony is compounded when we realize that seeing a hidden figure in a carpet is a central metaphor for the ability of fiction to present truth. Hawthorne’s use of the figure-in-the-carpet image in “The Custom-House,” the preface to The Scarlet Letter, forms, along with James’s response to it, the crux of the central American dialogue about the ability of fiction to reveal truth about reality—with James arguing on the side of the truth-telling ability of fiction.

Henry James responded to Hawthorne’s figure-in-the-carpet metaphor by arguing strenuously for a truth-telling fiction, yet James’s own use of the figure-in-the-carpet image has become an archetype for the inability of fiction—even for the inability of language—to tell the truth; this dramatic irony can be partially resolved, perhaps, in the idea that the interpretation of a story is not complete unless we produce a critical reading based on its intertextual dimension. 3 To explore the intertextual dimension of Henry James’s “The Figure in the Carpet,” we should look at Hawthorne’s use of the image and at James’s response.

Nathaniel Hawthorne describes writing as the reporting of “figures” seen in a carpet. In the Introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne speaks of moonlight [End Page 142] “in a familiar room,” falling “white upon the carpet” and distinctly “showing all its figures”; according to Hawthorne, moonlight brings out and transforms the carpet’s figures, permitting “a romance-writer to get acquainted” with his imagined characters (SL 35). Could this be a source for Henry James when, in “The Figure in the Carpet,” an unnamed narrator questions a famous author, Hugh Vereker, about the key to understanding Vereker’s work? The young critic asks if it is “some kind of game you’re up to with your style, something you’re after in language. Perhaps it’s a preference for the letter P!” An indulgent Vereker “only said” that the critic had not “got the right letter” (FC 234). If “P” is wrong, what is the right letter? Could it be “A”—the scarlet letter in Hawthorne’s novel? Telling the narrator, “You’ve got a heart in your body,” Vereker says that his secret is the “organ of life” in his writing, implying the similarity of his secret to the heart in a person’s body (FC 234). James’s reference to the heart fits with Hawthorne’s favorite theme of heart/head. For example, in Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark,” Hawthorne says that “the love of science” rivaled “the love of woman, in its depth and absorbing energy” (BM764). The heart symbol appears when Aylmer, Hawthorne’s main character, becomes obsessed with a birthmark shaped like a tiny hand on the face of his beautiful wife, marring her perfection. Aylmer dreams that he is “attempting an operation for the removal of the birth-mark,” yet “the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the Hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana’s heart; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away” (BM 767). Relying on his prowess as a scientist, on “the head,” Aylmer ignores the warning of the dream, produces an elixir to remove the mark, and gives it to Georgiana to drink; the elixir eliminates the birthmark but kills his wife, plunging Aylmer into the deepest grief. Had Aylmer favored heart over head, he might have been happy. Hawthorne provides a possible alternative ending: “had Aylmer reached a...