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Unsquaring the Squared Route of What Maisie Knew Barbara Eckstein, Tulane University In her essay "What Maisie Knew: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl," Juliet Mitchell provocatively implies a sort of cross-dressing on the part of Henry James. She writes, "First as the child Maisie, then as the man, Henry James looks through a glass dimly in order that the reflection should be 'sharp' and 'quiet'" (189). The young girl Maisie becomes, through her learned vision, the man, the artist, Henry James. "James's description of Maisie's initiation at the deepest level is profoundly bound up with his method for the whole novel, her progress so much its progress, her art his art" (177). To arrive at the conclusion that her title promises, Mitchell pursues two perspectives through which James sees in the novel: Maisie's, "straight" and seemingly "innocent," and Mrs. Wix's, "crooked" and apparently "pornographic." Although Maisie's initiation is indeed bound up with the method of the novel, one might better describe that method through the relationship of James, or rather his narrator—who is, after all, present from the very beginning of the novel as Mrs. Wix is not—to Maisie. This relationship is not one in which Maisie becomes James; or he, her—except perhaps in the sense that they flatter one another. For Maisie's childhood does not equip her to be an artist, at least not yet, not at thirteen, as far as the novel takes us. In the end it is not true that "[Maisie's] knowledge is pure, her freedom complete" (Mitchell 187). And yet the development of James's, or rather his third-person narrator's, relationship with Maisie is the method, the progress, of the novel. The method of the novel is also parody, particularly self-parody.1 For as the novel proceeds and increasing numbers of Maisie's disreputable guardians square off against one another, and as James more obviously associates the symmetry of "squaring" with immorality, James's impulses toward formalist symmetry become objects of his own attack. Maisie serves the squaring of her guardians both within the fictional world and narrative form. But the exploitation of her character in both realms finally reveals itself. Though James very early shows the squaringoff of one parent against another to be selfish manipulation, he much more slowly discloses the difficulties with a morality intended to square things—discloses it as though he, or his narrator, learns the limitations of ethical and aesthetic symmetry as we do and Maisie tries to. One would not want to deny James either his mastery or his ability to discover meaning through his writing. As Derrida explains in Writing and Difference, "To write is to know that what has not yet been produced within literality has no other dwelling place, does not await us as prescription in 178 The Henry James Review some topos ouranios, or some divine understanding. Meaning must await being said or written in order to inhabit itself, and in order to become, by differing from itself, what it is: meaning" (11). The way in which James's method in What Maisie Knew differs from itself I am calling parody, but it is also becoming, that is, finding meaning, especially moral meaning, when certainty—in Derrida's analyses always finally metaphysical certainty— no longer provides it. An unquestioning identification of James in the preface (1908) with the narrator in the novel (1897) would certainly be a mistake, for the persona of the prefaces is as slippery a self as Nabokov in interviews. As Leo Bersani points out, the voice of the prefaces often misleads (53). To confound the reader, to entice: these are likely intentions of the prefaces. In addition, as Carren Osna Kaston has noticed, What Maisie Knew begins with a documentary, "anesthetized tone—an assured, cool, legal precision which shows disdain for the immorality of Maisie's parents" (29). "The litigation had seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal the judgement of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child" (WM 3). This voice bridging James's and Maisie's worlds produces...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 177-187
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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