The Henry James Review 25.2 (2004) 198-200
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One pleasure that might be considered particularly Jamesian is the repetitious enjoyment of the almost-selfsame idea: over and over, in reading James, we thrill to the adventurous nonadventure, the sudden awareness, the renunciation, the moral crisis, and to the Jamesian stylistic idiosyncrasies that evoke all of these and more. Readers of Donatella Izzo's excellent study of gender and representation in James's short fiction are invited to participate in a similar delight as they enjoy Izzo's ability to turn every which way the question of women and representation in some of James's least discussed stories. As her title signals, Izzo insistently examines not simply representations of women but the representational issues that James's fictional women foreground. In doing so, Izzo participates in two important theoretical trends: a revaluation of aesthetics that sees it not separate from (or contradictory to) but alongside ideological considerations, and a nuanced feminist inquiry that addresses subtle questions of gender and subjectivity as well as the historical experiences of women. Rich readings of James and his cultural context result from Izzo's ability to balance questions raised by these issues with detailed examinations of James's less canonical short fiction.
Let me begin near the end of Portraying the Lady, with an image that hovers over Izzo's book: a mirror, here a broken one in James's last completed (although not last published) story, "Mora Montravers." Mora's uncle is faced with his niece's determination not to capitulate to others' conventional interpretations of her. Izzo quotes James: "it would be her line in life, he was certain, to reduce many theories, solemn Wimbledon theories about the scandalous person, to the futility [End Page 198] of so much broken looking-glass" (253). "Given the implications of the mirror in the process of woman's identification and socialization," Izzo observes about this passage, "the shattered looking glass conveys powerfully Mora's active refusal of both the allurements of narcissism and the prison house of clichés" (253). The story not only reveals James in his last story centrally concerned with "the resistance to and victory over the will to definition and appropriation of others" (244), but also, according to Izzo, casts a backward, self-reflexive glance on James's career of representing women. Activity replaces passivity, and Mora becomes, in Izzo's words, not the tragic heroine familiar from much of James's fiction but the "mastermind of a prodigious system of metamorphosis," the "active subject of a story organized according to her own precise design" (257). Izzo argues that in "Mora Montravers" a female character, for the first time, "says, in her own voice, what she wants": "I want to be free" (258). By way of Althusser (ideology), Foucault (the subject and sexuality), de Lauretis (technologies of gender), Bal (narratology), Butler (performativity), and an impressive array of additional critics on sexuality, gender, narrative, and, of course, on Henry James, Izzo works her way to this concluding story in James's career-long process of understanding his own and his culture's representations of women.
The book's complex structure invites comment. A substantial introduction helpfully surveys late-twentieth-century critical trends that moved James from "the relatively monolithic Master" to the "many Henry Jameses who populate contemporary culture" (3). The book is then divided into two main parts: Part 1, "The Gaze: In the Museum of Women," examines eight stories that "revolve around women, art objects, beauty, and time" (35). Part 2, "The Voice: Discourses of Silence," considers six stories that connect gender, silence, and representation. Each of these parts, in turn, is subdivided several times: two subsections, several chapters, "epilogues" (two for Part 1 and one for Part 2). Chapters have many smaller sections with subheadings (occasionally as frequently as one per page). An unnumbered chapter concludes the...