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Color in What Maisie Knew: An Expression of Authorial Presence James Lowe, Indiana University ι Critical interest in Henry James's association with the visual arts continues. (See, for example, Adams, Lubin, Torgovnick, and Tintner.) Evidently, however, only broad affinities between James's fiction and the arts are deemed subjects of a suitable enough magnitude to merit examination. Accordingly, recent studies, and earlier ones, neglect James's use of the visual element of color, preferring the larger visual concerns of pictorialism and impressionism despite the potential of color for "interpretive" use—identified as the most complex application of the visual arts in fiction by Marianna Torgovnick in her study The Visual Arts, Pictorialism , and the Novel (13-14, 22). Compared with the ambiguities in defining and applying such terms as "pictorialism" and "impressionism," the specificity of color would seem likely to yield more clearly-grounded critical readings.1 James himself gives the visual element of color special emphasis. Even in his early short story "Four Meetings" (1877), he makes complex figurative use of colors. The pink of Caroline Spencer's pin and ribbons and the black of her "scanty" silk dress (FM 269), for example, signify her sexuality, just as the pink of the Countess's old gown connotes her degeneracy (FM 302). Twenty years later, in What Maisie Knew (1897), James seems to be capitalizing more fully on the relationship of color with experience. He employs it not only figuratively, as in "Four Meetings," but now literally, as a quantifier of experience; that is, the more Maisie's consciousness develops, the more instances of color James shows her registering. Since he intends to restrict himself to a child's capacity for perception, he cannot introduce sophisticated allusions to the visual arts as, for instance, he does in The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. Color, then, should receive particular emphasis in Maisie, making the prospect of a study of color in the novel promising because it is one of the few visual devices perfectly appropriate to a child's vision. And Maisie's vision is crucial to her, as Tony Tanner observes: "As a child abandoned by her real parents and exploited by her adulterous stepparents, Maisie has more incentive and more need to use her eyes than any other Jamesian character. They are, as it were, all she has" (88). Color thus provides for James a literal and figurative signifier of Maisie's experience, ripe for the subtle expression of his authorial presence in the book. He can now signal Maisie's developing consciousness by the increased frequency of the notation of color, naturally inherent in Maisie's circumstances, without having to Color in What Maisie Knew 189 introduce another character or himself overtly to claim regularly her perceptual advancement—just the sense of economy James prizes. He presents the aims of Maisie and outlines his strategy for achieving them in the preface. Maisie's consciousness, he explains, is the focus of the book: all that she sees, not just what she understands, is presented to the reader. The irony James desires necessitates that Maisie's moral sensibility be improved, not worsened, by her ignoble situation. And James relies on the reader's exercise of an understanding superior to Maisie's to amplify the meaning of her situation. This difference in understandings, a difference in the degree of consciousness, depends upon the reader's ironic perception of the sordidness of Maisie's circumstances , a sordidness that her innocence does not register for her. In order to achieve this double focus, James presumably must provide for the reader not only all the information available to Maisie, but an evaluative context as well. That context can be supplied by the authorial presence. With subtle nudges and hints James can direct the reader's attention to his* aims: (1) the development of Maisie's consciousness—that is, the range of her sensory perception; (2) her moral transcendence over her offensive and potentially corruptive circumstances; and (3) the ironic difference between her perceptions and those of the reader. James so refines his use of color as an expression of his authorial presence that, subtle as it is explicit, it becomes a major...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 188-198
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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