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The Myopic Narrator in Henry James's "Glasses" by Sharon Dean, Rivier College At the end of "The Jolly Corner" when Spencer Brydon confronts the self he might have been, or rather, it confronts him, this other self wears a "double eyeglass ." Alice Staverton caUs it a '"great convex pince-nez . . . for his poor ruined sight,'" commenting as well that "'he's grim, he's worn—and things have happened to him. He doesn't make shift, for sight, with your charming monocle"" (AN 634, 641). The "great convex pince-nez" may represent that had he lived otherwise, Spencer would be a man who has looked squarely at life, the glasses serving as a symbol for social defiance and personal integrity. Alice's comment is helpful in coming to grips with James's tale "Glasses," which revolves around the plight of a shaUow young woman who resists wearing an ugly pair of very strong glasses and which raises throughout questions about how squarely the narrator of the tale looks at life as he pursues his career as artist. First published in 1896, a decade before "The Jolly Corner ," "Glasses" does not appear in the New York Edition (1907-1909), but James did consider it important enough to revise, just before his death, for the Martin Seeker edition Uniform Tales.1 The revisions involve only brief changes in diction, many emphasizing the narrator as the central character. In both versions, James creates a strong image pattern around words related to blindness and sight that apply not just to the afflicted woman but also, ironically , to the artist as see-er. Adeline Tintner has grappled with the irony of the tale (287-88), but "Glasses" still remains obscure in the James canon even though it, like some of the more popular artist-narrator tales, shows how deeply James wrestled with the problem of artistic vision. James records his initial conception of the tale in a Notebook entry on June 26, 1895 (NB 212). The idea came to him when he saw "a very pretty woman in spectacles ... on the top of an omnibus." In his tale, he says, the woman should be condemned to wear "spectacles" of a "big strong unbecoming kind, with a bar across them." She will be "a very pretty, a very beautiful little woman, devoted to her beauty . . . rejoicing in it more than anything on earth." Flora Saunt, of the finished tale, is just such a woman, and her predicament evolves much as James initially conceived it: she tries to marry before the secret of her affliction is found out; she sets her aims on a rich suitor (Lord Iffield) who rejects her when he accidentally discovers her secret; she ignores an "ugly" suitor (Geoffrey Dawling) whose attentions never wane. In the course of writing his Notebook entry, James also quickly hits upon his narrative method: the whole tale, he says, must be seen through the eyes of a "spectator, an observer." In the completed tale, this observer reports Flora's engagement and, when her secret is found out, her jilting by Lord Iffield. Uninterested in Flora as a model now that her beauty is marred, the narrator leaves for America and hears nothing more of her until, returning three years later, he discovers that she has regained her beauty at the price of her vision and that, blind, she is protected by her husband—Geoffrey Dawling . Initially, James thought of calling his tale "Les Lunettes," but he quickly decided that "The Spectacles won't do" (NB 205). The title "Glasses" suggests not just Flora's problem but also the narrator's character, his tendency to try to examine everyone but himself under a fine magnifying glass and his delight when Flora's beauty, like an exotic flower's, is preserved under the protective glass of Geoffrey Dawling. Although the narrator is not exactly unreliable (many of his speculations prove, in the long run, accurate), we might call him myopic because, while he sees a great deal about himself and others, he sees only on the surface, as if his role as a portraitist has enabled him to see only superficial beauty and has made him incapable of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 191-195
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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