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  • James’s Broken English: Metaphors and Meaning in the Prefaces
  • Anita Durkin (bio)

In His Introduction to ‘The Art of the Novel,’ the first work to present Henry James’s prefaces to The New York Edition as a related whole, rather than as a series of discreet entities, R. P. Blackmur warns his reader of the difficulty involved in reading these exceptionally dense essays. As Blackmur predicts, “At the least we [the readers] shall require the maximum of strained attention, and the faculty of retaining detail will be pushed to its limit. And these conditions will not apply from the difficulty of what James has to say—which is indeed lucid—but because of the convoluted compression of his style and because of the positive unfamiliarity of his terms as he uses them” (ix). Implicit in Blackmur’s warning, which rightly emphasizes the interpretive challenge that James’s late style poses, is the segregation of James’s abstract ideas about writing from James’s writing itself. If reading the prefaces is difficult, Blackmur suggests, it is not because James’s ideas are incoherent, but because he expresses them in terms that are unfamiliar, and in a style complicated by its “compression.” As a seminal critical text in the Jamesian canon, Blackmur’s introduction in many ways sets up a divorce of theoretical content from the form that embodies it, which many subsequent Jamesian critics have inherited.

What Blackmur’s subtle distinction obscures is that the style in which James writes the prefaces thoroughly entwines with some of the theoretical assertions that the prefaces make; indeed, the figurative language of the prefaces (specifically, the many and various metaphors that comprise so much of these texts) is itself a kind of theoretical assertion, namely, that meaning in prose fiction should be multiple. As I argue, the proliferation of metaphorical language in the prefaces in its various [End Page 55] forms dissociates the metaphorical tenors from the vehicles that ought in some way to describe them. As a result, the vehicles so unfetter from the tenors that the metaphors proliferate via their metonymic associations, forming subsequently new and often strange relationships among various metaphors, and producing, in the process, unexpected meanings. Thus, as is evident in the many close and thoughtful readings of specific metaphors in the prefaces, James’s images overlap and asymmetrically repeat in a manner that allows one to piece together many and varied meanings from them. This is so because James’s ever-expanding metaphors allow him to use words in such an idiosyncratic fashion that they feel alien, even though they are familiar. Yet by making a known language feel, through metaphorical excess, foreign and strange, James indicates in his prefaces the possibility for words not only to mean in multifarious ways, but to mean in a potentially infinite variety of ways, to mean according to their shifting contexts. What is more, as in The Golden Bowl, James figures the possibility of proliferating meanings through images of assimilation, specifically, the many immigrants arriving in London at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.

In an extraordinary passage in his preface to “Lady Barbarina,” James suggests the broken English of assimilating immigrants as an apt figure for his own idiosyncratic—and subsequently interpretable—use of the language. James’s figuration of his unusual writing style through newly-arriving immigrants suggests that style’s untranslatability. At once equating the comprehension of words and people and indicating his subsequent inability to represent either, James contends that he cannot translate the new immigrants into the old intrigues of his early fictions, as if the sounds and signs he cannot understand represent all the nuances of culture and tradition that he cannot, following the conventions of his early work, render. At the same time, James intimates that the immigrants, attempting to speak English, do not understand what they’re saying any more than he does. Rather, their broken English illuminates the same gap between meaning and intention that James’s late style exploits; for it is through this gap that James cultivates a self-productive meaning, a metonymic, accidental, and even “punny” kind of meaning, in his own broken...


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pp. 55-82
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