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  • “Artful Artlessness”: Reading the Coquette in Roderick Hudson
  • Natasha Sajé

Since its coinage in mid-seventeenth-century France, “coquette” labels a woman who gains power over others by manipulative verbal and body language, a skill referred to as her “art.” 1 Etymologically, the word “coquette” comes from “cock,” a male animal which controls its hens and is known for feisty aggression; the word, however, refers to a woman, whose passivity and subordination have long been assumed. One of the contradictions posed by “coquette,” then, is the way in which this woman is not a woman. 2 Alongside her “male” will to power, the coquette exaggerates the traditionally “female” fault of artifice. 3 For Nietzsche, “woman’s great art is the lie, her supreme concern is appearance and beauty” (qtd. in Derrida 69), to which Jacques Derrida responds that it is precisely this emphasis on surfaces that yields truth:

[Woman] plays at dissimulation, at ornament, deceit, artifice, at an artist’s philosophy. Hers is an affirmative power. And if she continues to be condemned, it is only from the man’s point of view where she repudiates that affirmative power and, in her specular reflection of that foolish dogmatism that she has provoked, belies her belief in truth.


Early in Roderick Hudson (1875), Henry James’s second novel, Rowland Mallet views the sculptures of Roderick, a young law clerk whose first avocation seems to be art. The pieces have, Rowland notes, an “artless artfulness,” a “homely veracity” (190) reminiscent of the early Italian Renaissance; the converse of this phrase, “artful artlessness” (269), is James’s term for Christina Light, the coquette whom Roderick loves (italics mine). Thus James opposes two kinds of art, the first clumsy and untheorized, the second “plastic” and self-aware. Roderick’s untheorized art is not unlike the state of the American novel when James lit upon the scene in the 1870s. Consequently, in the figure of the coquette, James links gender and genre: “artful artlessness” is James’s vision of the novel’s [End Page 161] potential—and his own statement of artistic purpose. By creating a character who embodies the desirable qualities of the genre—notably, conscious artifice—but who, because she is a marriageable female, is denied the chance to work within it, James reveals the tragic consequences for women who express art only in life. Despite James’s sympathy for Christina Light, however, his characters exploit homosocial bonds and patriarchal law to restrict her art, a movement analogous to the way that James and his “brotherhood of novelists” (EL 44) would exclude female writers from the novel’s new status as “high art.”

For James at the beginning of his career, in the 1870s, “artful artlessness” signifies the quality of art that subsumes or disguises the process by which it works. Therein lies its power. The artist who practices it does not, in the fashion of Mannerism, call attention to his style; rather, like the realism of the nineteenth-century novel, “artful artlessness” works via skillful and unobtrusive mimesis. James articulates the artist’s effort in terms of gain and loss, of fullness and lack: The artfully artless novel seems natural, rather than is natural, and thus defies loss, lack, and mortality. As Elisabeth Bronfen suggests, “the creation of beauty allows us to escape from the elusiveness of the material world into an illusion of eternity (a denial of loss), even as it imposes on us the realization that beauty is itself elusive, intangible, receding” (64). As the exemplar of “artful artlessness” in Roderick Hudson, Christina Light defies loss, lack, and mortality: “[her beauty is not] something distinct and defined, something independent of the rest of her. She is all one, and all consummately interesting” (288). Like James’s ideal novel, she is “as complete as possible” (EL 65). However, Christina’s self-sufficiency and her “superb indifferen[ce]” (RH 274) make her an enigma, a “riddle” (326, 436). This type, Bronfen notes, “fascinates because she has preserved an original narcissism, an unassailable libidinal position which man has irrevocably lost. The intactness he has lost is refound, by virtue of projection, at the site of this type of Woman” (265...

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pp. 161-172
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