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Hanging Fire, or A New Ontology for Poynton

This essay discovers the etymological history of James’s frequently used phrase, “hanging fire.” James employed the phrase idiosyncratically, such that he consistently, if implicitly, compares characters to malfunctioning firearms. I follow the consequences of such unorthodox characterization in The Spoils of Poynton. If when Fleda “hangs fire” she becomes a gun, then the novel’s apparent ontological division between persons and things no longer holds. Instead, Poynton introduces persons who are sometimes things. The figural world of the novel echoes this unconventional ontology, proposing amalgamations of bodies and houses that open up new referents for James’s characters.

Henry James’s penchant for the phrase “hanging fire” is not difficult to recognize. From Watch and Ward in 1871 through The Golden Bowl in 1904, the idiom liberally peppers his fictions. Ned Lukacher has accordingly asserted the phrase’s centrality to James’s signature style: he writes that “hanging fire” “appears so insistently that one might, at the risk of a slight exaggeration, regard it as a tic, or compulsive element, in the late Jamesian tone” (131). Whether James was at the mercy of the phrase, or the phrase at the mercy of James, cannot be known, but its odd syntactical form certainly has the capacity to independently worry readers. Fire, it seems obvious to say, never submits to being “hung” in an active sense, and it is not easy to imagine how it might be suspended, in the sense of a “hung jury.” As it turns out, neither of these images are what James, or his contemporary readers, likely had in mind. The phrase emerges to describe the particular malfunctioning of a firearm, and James’s use of it implicitly compares speaking characters to such firearms. Understanding the phrase’s history thus provides new insight into James’s conception of character, particularly challenging the notion that James’s characters exclusively represent persons. Instead of discrete physical bodies, bound by flesh and guided by will, his characters emerge as sharing fundamental properties and aspects of the material world that surrounds them. As a result, the referent for a character’s name may not be a human figure so much as an odd amalgamation of body parts and other material entities.

The ontological rearrangement proposed by “hanging fire” is especially resonant in The Spoils of Poynton. Insofar as the plot involves persons who inherit, desire, and physically move things, the novel would seem to regard persons and things as separate sorts of entities. That is, the novel’s persons may be driven by things, or deeply committed to them, but the two would seem to remain ontologically distinguishable: indeed, their relation would seem to guarantee their difference. Yet the novel’s figural register refuses such neat logic. It dismantles both persons and things and confuses the resulting parts: houses open their arms; bodies ring like bells; a woman becomes [End Page 51] a stone. “Hanging fire” thus joins a series of metaphors that reject a categorical division between persons and things, rendering Poynton a novel that is curious, rather than assured, about the nature of such forms.

In what follows, I determine James’s particular way of using “hanging fire” by tracing the history of the phrase. I then examine the figurative language that echoes the phrase and shapes the narrative of The Spoils of Poynton. Ultimately, I argue that “hanging fire,” and the other figures James employs, describe persons and things that escape their normative molds to form temporary combinations that cohere as neither one nor the other. I thus suggest that James’s ontology resists divisions that it is easy to take as axiomatic.

How Fire may be Hung

I begin with a representative example of “hanging fire” from Poynton. What makes the example representative is that the phrase appears in the course of a dialogue. James generally uses the phrase in a two-character conversation, following one character’s speech: when the reader’s attention shifts to the other character, he or she is said to hang fire, and then his or her response ensues. The dialogue below takes place nearly at the midpoint of Poynton, as the stand-off between Mrs. Gereth and Owen crystallizes. Mrs. Gereth has taken nearly all of the art and furniture from Poynton and installed them at Ricks; Owen has come to Ricks to ask Fleda to intercede on his behalf, but, in doing so, he has intimated that if the objects are not returned, Mona will break their engagement. Although everyone but Mona seems to desire this outcome, Fleda has already determined that “she could never lift her finger against Mona,” because “[t]here was something in her that would make it a shame to her for ever to have owed her happiness to an interference” (SP 104). Thus when Fleda reports to Mrs. Gereth, she decides to omit Owen’s crucial communication, effectively interfering on Mona’s behalf instead of her own. The canny Mrs. Gereth, here speaking first, nonetheless suspects the truth:

“If I don’t give in I’ll be hanged if she’ll not break off.”

“She’ll never, never break off,” said Fleda.

“Are you sure?”

“I can’t be sure, but it’s my belief.”

“Derived from him?”

The girl hung fire a few seconds. “Derived from him.”


In between Mrs. Gereth’s question, “Derived from him?” and Fleda’s answer, “Derived from him,” “The girl hung fire a few seconds” clearly indicates a delay. The OED confirms as much: figuratively, it notes, “to hang fire” is “to hesitate or be slow in acting” (“hang”). But this definition leaves the precise sort of delay, the nature of the hesitation and slowness, unexplained. Other scholars have assumed that because James uses the idiom in dialogues, it indicates a delay that one produces in speech or conversation. Lukacher’s 1986 reading of The Turn of the Screw, entitled “Hanging Fire,” offers the most complete interpretation along these lines. Lukacher writes: [End Page 52]

“To hang fire” means “to hesitate,” “to remain concealed,” “to withdraw, or step back, in the very act of seemingly stepping forward to say something.” “To hang fire” is “to keep something hidden in the very act of apparently revealing something.” By noting the point at which someone “hangs fire,” James locates the point of maximum resistance, the point at which saying something also becomes a way of not saying something else.


Lukacher mentions that the phrase is “from the early history of firearms” (131), but he largely disregards that context, deriving his account primarily from James’s texts. Although much of Lukacher’s definition is quoted, it is, as far as I can tell, a proposed interpretation rather than a citation. Nonetheless, it has been influential. Sheila Teahan’s 2011 essay on “The Great Good Place” relies on Lukacher to argue that the idiom may be allied with aposiopesis, the figure of becoming silent (165–66). Eric Savoy’s 2010 essay on The Aspern Papers offers a somewhat different account. It does not obviously follow Lukacher but neither does it mount a significantly divergent approach. Savoy works from artist Cornelia Parker’s 1999 sculpture Hanging Fire, in which the charred remnants of a building seem to be suspended—to hang—in midair.1 Despite Savoy’s material referent, he too reads “hanging fire” as “James’s ubiquitous figure for conversational suppression or self-censoring,” so that Parker’s installation constitutes “a playful shift of register from discourse to objects” (63). Savoy interprets Parker as circumventing the phrase’s reference to discourse when she depicts its literal meaning.

In fact, “hanging fire” does not refer to discourse outside of James scholarship. The phrase dates from the eighteenth century2 and, as Teahan acknowledges, describes something that happens to firearms. In particular, it describes something that happens to the flintlock musket that was the basic infantry gun from the mid-seventeenth century through the 1840s. When one pulls the trigger of such muskets, a flint is struck and produces a spark in a pile of gunpowder that sits in a pan external to the main barrel of the gun. The resulting fire then moves, through a little communicating hole, into the main barrel, where it ignites the greater quantity of gunpowder necessary to set off the ball. Because of inconsistencies in gunpowder quality, it sometimes happened that the fire took extra time to move through the gun barrel, so that the gun fired several seconds later than expected. This delayed shot is called a “hang fire.” It could be expected, according to the Almanac of American Military History, in one out of every eighteen shots fired with the weapons used during the revolutionary war (Tucker 416).

The etymology of “hanging fire” contradicts the presumed meaning of suppressed speech in two key ways. First, it is the gun, and not the human, that hangs fire. In the case of a hang fire, the human operator performs his or her operations (setting the powder, ramming the ball, pulling the trigger) as usual. Then nothing seems to happen; the gun, unaccountably, appears to have failed. When the shot is eventually produced, the gun’s presumed failure is revealed as, instead, a hang fire: a retardation of its normal process. An 1877 guide to partridge shooting illustrates the gun’s responsibility for the event: [End Page 53]

The . . . unskilled sportsman . . . has many false excuses for not killing. For instance . . . a bird rises and flies off, he bangs away; the bird is missed clear as a whistle. He then says, “did you hear my gun hang fire; what a pity, such a beautiful shot, too. I would have riddled that bird if my gun had not hung fire. It hung fire so long I did not think it was going off, and just as I was in the act of taking it from my shoulder, to my utter astonishment, it went off.”

The sportsman’s “utter astonishment” underscores the lack of human agency involved in the hang fire: the gun surprises the human when its material components deviate from its expected course of action. Hence, etymologically, hanging fire is incompatible with deliberation, with an intentional holding back or refusal. Rather, hanging fire, like rain, uncontrollably happens.

The second crucial aspect of the original phrase is that a hang fire ultimately results in the intended outcome—that is, the shot. Rather than referring to an exchange of an expected action for an unexpected one, as in Lukacher’s description of stepping back while seeming to step forward, or keeping something hidden while appearing to reveal, hanging fire indicates a more direct delay. As the imaginary sportsman testifies, a hang fire illustrates that what had seemed not to happen was actually, slowly, happening. It belatedly converts a moment of disappointment with the gun’s failure into a protracted anticipation of its operation.

Uncontrollable, rather than manipulated, delay remains the keystone of “hanging fire” when the phrase coalesces into an idiom in the nineteenth century. The verb thereby shifts from transitive to intransitive: instead of fire being what is always hung, in the sense of suspended, any instance of suspended action may be referred to as a “hang fire.” For example, the OED cites an 1801 description of a planned expedition that “seems to hang fire,” meaning that the event seems to lag (“hang”). More pertinently, the Atlantic Monthly illustrates how James’s peers use the phrase. His fellow writers employ the figure to evoke a day that is late in dawning; cloth prices that hover rather than rise; a magazine submission that doesn’t quite make it off the editor’s desk; and a proposed bill that has yet to be passed.3 Here are two representative examples: “We brushed up and watched the first signs of dawn through an open port; but the day seemed to hang fire” (“Chesuncook” 1); “he mentioned that the matter had been hanging fire in the House [of Commons] two hundred years” (Riis 19). In each case, the action of hanging fire is attributed to an inanimate object, and an eventually produced outcome is indicated (if not, as in the second example, actually witnessed). There are a few anomalous instances in the Atlantic in which the phrase describes a personal quality that hangs back, such as Rebecca Harding Davis’s notation that a character’s “enthusiasm hung fire strangely” (537). While enthusiasm is not an inanimate object, Davis implies that the enthusiasm circumvents the character’s will, operating as an unaccountable independent force.

If we follow the etymological and cultural routes I have paved, James’s texts present an enigma. For while James uses the idiom more than all of his fellow Atlantic contributors combined, comparison reveals that he does so in an idiosyncratic way.4 In the 1876 Roderick Hudson, something that Rowland has delayed in telling Christina is characterized as having been “hanging fire all this time” (349), which is consistent with James’s peers’ usage of the term: the information is figured as having [End Page 54] too slowly made its way into speech. Yet from The American forward, James almost exclusively writes that a character hangs fire—that, for instance, “Owen hung fire,” or “Fleda hung fire.” These instances are confounding, because they appear to overwrite the accurate and conventional use of the phrase: as I emphasized, since it is the gun that hangs fire, it makes sense that as a figure of speech, only inanimate entities, or those beyond human control, could be so described. The discrepancy clarifies why James’s critics have understood the phrase as his own formula for intentionally not speaking. When we read that “Fleda hung fire,” it is difficult not to imagine that she is purposely doing something: hanging fire seems to be an act, like hanging laundry. And as the phrase generally appears within a dialogue, and before a character speaks, it is easy to construe it as a willed hesitance.

I contend, however, that such interpretation too swiftly relieves the pressure the phrase’s history puts on James’s writing. To read James’s “hanging fires” in the context of his peers’ writing subtly, but insistently, changes how his sentences resonate. It begins to sound, however strangely, as if he means to describe his characters as delaying in the manner that a musket delays. In other words, his characters seem to become, in their dialogues, inanimate entities, operating like mechanical objects that occasionally malfunction, completing their set tasks only belatedly. From this perspective, James does not alter what it means to hang fire; he alters what it means for a character to hesitate in speech. He implies that certain conditions have set, for instance, Fleda’s speech in motion—metaphorically, the gunpowder and ball have been loaded, the trigger depressed. Yet Fleda fails to go off: her response does not issue until several unaccountable moments have passed. She does not hesitate schemingly or even purposefully; instead, her expected issue makes its slow way through her, arriving at the fore just a bit too late.

Casting Fleda as an object that malfunctions may seem inapt, given the manipulative agency she displays elsewhere in the novel. Yet the “elsewhere” is key, for it reveals an inconsistency within James’s text. While he often narrates Fleda’s mental processes, in particular her reasoning as to how she ought to act and what she ought to say, his dialogues sharply deviate from such telepathic exposition. The dialogues are consistently presented as unattached lines of dialogue—unattached to tags that indicate the speaker and unattached to any insight as to the acts of articulation that produce them. Fleda is rendered merely a speaker, otherwise opaque, in these bare exchanges. It is difficult even to discern which lines are hers, if one does not pay close attention. Thus if we follow Fleda’s thoughts as “[s]he could calculate well enough the result of telling Mrs. Gereth, how she had had it from Owen’s troubled lips that Mona was only waiting for the restitution and would do nothing without it” (SP 113), we lose all access to such calculation once she begins to speak. Our readerly viewpoint abruptly shifts from Fleda’s mind to a rather public setting, in which Fleda is physically present but not mentally or emotionally available. From this external perspective, we have no intimacy with her mental or bodily operations. She is an entity we witness, not a consciousness we inhabit. Her exchange with Mrs. Gereth thus resembles a tennis match—or a shooting volley. We await her responses, some of which meet their target exactly and some of which misfire, or hang fire: [End Page 55]

“He told me nothing whatever. He didn’t touch on the subject.”

“Not in any way?”

“Not in any way.”

Mrs. Gereth watched her and considered. “You haven’t the notion they’re waiting for the things?”

“How should I have? I’m not in their counsels.”

“I dare say they are—or that Mona is.” Mrs. Gereth weighed it again; she had a bright idea. “If I don’t give in I’ll be hanged if she’ll not break off.”

“She’ll never, never break off,” said Fleda.

“Are you sure?”

“I can’t be sure, but it’s my belief.”

“Derived from him?”

The girl hung fire a few seconds. “Derived from him.”


Much of what Fleda says in this exchange she repeats after Mrs. Gereth. When she does not parrot, her formulations derive from the other character: “Not in any way”; “She’ll never break off”; “I can’t be sure”; “Derived from him.” It is as if Mrs. Gereth provides the initial shot and Fleda sends it nearly identically back, so that the dialogue acquires a call-and-response rhythm. The scant narrative statements within these lines, such as “Mrs. Gereth watched her and considered” and “Mrs. Gereth weighed it again; she had a bright idea,” are not identified with Fleda, nor are they particularly illuminating of mental action (What is Mrs. Gereth considering? What is she weighing? What is her bright idea?). As David Kurnick has noted of The Other House, we might be reading stage directions, which would again situate the reader as an observer to the scene of dialogue rather than the process of articulation (116). Accordingly, “The girl hung fire a few seconds” indicates a pause, a protracted moment, a break in the echoing exchange: not a decision to hesitate but a noted delay in progress. The intransitive operation of the phrase is subtly underscored by its contrast with Mrs. Gereth’s wager, “If I don’t give in I’ll be hanged if she’ll not break off.” Mrs. Gereth metaphorically risks her life, asserting that she is willing to be hung, in the sense of executed, if Mona acts against her expectations. But in Fleda’s case, there is no willingness or unwillingness and there is no person to be hung. Rather, the “hung fire” primarily marks time—the “few seconds,” the long moment, before Fleda completes her expected echo.

In sum, although the syntax of “the girl hung fire” allows us to imagine that Fleda intentionally does something, I am arguing instead that the phrase positions her among the other idling objects described on the pages of the Atlantic. For James, Fleda works like the belated dawn, the hovering cloth prices, and the ignored magazine submission recorded by his peers. Or, more accurately, Fleda fails to work, temporarily, like those other suspended entities.

Fleda Becomes a Gun

Imagining Fleda among the dawn, cloth prices, and magazine submission, and imagining all of these entities as resembling the flintlock musket, is profoundly disorienting. The disorientation results not only from the oddity of the comparison [End Page 56] but from the fact that the comparison only seems relevant while Fleda is engaged in dialogue. Within a page of the dialogue above, it becomes impossible to continue to identify Fleda with the malfunctioning firearm, for a new chapter begins with her reflecting on the conversation she has had. After Fleda’s final “derived from him,” Mrs. Gereth “rather dryly” commands Fleda to come to tea, and “[t]he sense of her dryness,” James writes, “which was ominous of a complication, made Fleda, before complying, linger a little on the terrace: she felt the need moreover of taking breath after such a flight into the cold air of denial” (SP 114–15). Here, Fleda does things that no gun can do: she senses Mrs. Gereth’s dry tone, she interprets it as a harbinger of future difficulties, and she is compelled, as a result, to linger on the terrace. This lingering is markedly different from Fleda’s “hung fire” delay. While James’s syntax renders Fleda passive before her sense (“the sense . . . made Fleda . . . linger”) and need (“she felt the need”), he implies that Fleda actively determines to wait on the terrace.

One might be tempted to interpret the narration as canceling the effect of the dialogue, so that if Fleda is, briefly, identified with a gun, she is ultimately reconstituted into a thinking being. Yet James’s abrupt shifts of perspective suggest no simple reconciliation is possible. Although Fleda is a thinking being when she decides not to lift a finger against Mona, and although she is again a thinking being when she decides to get some air on the terrace, the intervening dialogue shows her in an entirely other light. And Fleda is rendered in that light—her mind opaque, her sentences more or less mechanical—repeatedly, so that it is more accurate to say that James alternates the two visions of Fleda rather than that he merges them into one anthropomorphic form. The visions exist side-by-side; neither subsumes the other.

In other words, Fleda is rendered in two separate modes. In some scenes, she is a thinking being, and in others, she is a speaker who fires sentences. To put it glibly, sometimes she is a mind, and sometimes she is gun. She is not essentially one or the other. The case is thus as Mrs. Gereth puts it when she tells Fleda, “One doesn’t know what one has hold of in touching you” (183). There is no single “what” designated by the word Fleda. Split into mind and gun, Fleda does not register as a single whole, or as a unity. She is an either-or, a both-and, and to see her clearly requires that we give up on associating her with a coherent image. We must conceive her as two, the person driven and the weapon ignited.

To achieve this imaginative feat is to understand anew Fleda’s position within Poynton, as well as the novel as a whole. Fleda has consistently been read as participating in a drama that illustrates the power that persons exercise over things and vice versa. Implicitly, such an approach maintains a categorical opposition between persons and things, which may be related to the point of entanglement, but are never ontologically confused. Thus when Lee Clark Mitchell notes that Poynton does not condemn the treatment of persons as things, he requires one to know the difference between persons and things, and to be surprised by the characters’ reckless swapping (22). Even when he claims that the novel grants “an autonomy so radical to physical possessions that they sometimes seem human” (21), he shies away from wondering what keeps the possessions from actually being human. Similarly, Bill Brown’s exploration of the novel’s “dynamics of objectification, possession, and commodification” (157) maintains persons as profoundly affected by, but not fundamentally confused with, what they desire and own. [End Page 57]

Thomas Otten most nearly approaches the alternate ontology I am positing. His A Superficial Reading of Henry James identifies nineteenth-century contexts that “[dissolve] the boundary between the body and its property,” and he observes James’s tendency to describe matter that “can’t be held to or contained within the objects and bodies to which it rightfully belongs” (51, 113). Otten usefully links this tendency to an earlier American tradition of dismantling bodies, positioning James as inheriting the prosthetic logic of Poe’s “The Man That Was Used Up,” Hawthorne’s “Drowne’s Wooden Image,” and Melville’s Moby-Dick. While “American-Renaissance writers are uncomfortable with the compensations of prosthetics,” Otten writes, “James . . . [thinks] of daily life as itself a process of perpetual bodily refiguration” (33). I agree that James renders subtle what his predecessors made dramatic. Yet the body Otten has in mind when reading James seems to be an essentially human body: he never proposes that James questions what a perpetually refigured body therefore is, or what makes it recognizable as something conceptually distinct from surrounding objects. I would argue that if James moves beyond the earlier logic of the prosthetic, it is because he does not reserve a stable human form to which separate materials may be added: if a mind and a gun alternately respond to “Fleda,” neither functions as a prosthetic supplement to the other. James’s character goes further than shifting or changing her bodily form; “she” becomes something for which we have no single name.5

We have no single name because Fleda corresponds to no single entity. Fleda cannot be said to rank among the “persons,” since she is also an inanimate being; yet neither can she be simply classified as an object, since she also thinks about objects. Fleda is interrupted on both counts, which renders inoperative the dualism that pits persons against things. Being person-like and being object-like remain two distinct states, but neither state rules out the possibility of the other’s emergence. In other words, being a person does not recuse one from being a thing—not from being treated like a thing but from actually responding to conditions as a thing would.

Further Amalgamations

The strange new ontology I am describing brings into relief the rich figurative world of the novel, which breaks up presumed persons and presumed things and thus breaks down their presumed opposition. Images of parts of persons and of pieces of furniture and houses are pervasive as metaphors. The fragmented body appears in a variety of instances: Owen will marry Mona “in his mother’s teeth” (SP 43); his “fine open mouth” emblematizes his stupefaction (54); a difficult argument is a “concussion” (61); Ricks has “open arms” (64), as does Fleda (193). Mrs. Gereth is said to be Owen’s mother “as his nose was just his nose” (65); she is sure that Owen “would give his ears” to have Fleda (172); and she claims to have “bitten [her] tongue off” on Fleda’s behalf (176). Things are similarly disassembled when invoked for comparison. When Mrs. Gereth writes to Fleda, “you’ll at any rate be a bit of furniture,” Fleda interprets the “bit” as meaning not an inconsequential item but an incomplete part: “The position of a scrap of furniture was one that Fleda could conscientiously accept” (200). Elsewhere, Fleda “rang out like a silver bell” (99), and she “found herself tricking out the situation with artificial flowers” (180). There is a question “as small as your shoe” (123), “free rope” that silence permits (130), and excitement like a “spinning top” (193). As I have divided my examples, an imaginary of body parts [End Page 58] coexists alongside one of home furnishings, but as one actually reads the novel, the two registers are not so neatly separated. Instead, mouths and furniture, arms and bells, noses and artificial flowers make up one expansive reserve, commingling and nearly interchangeable: a character is just as likely to be described as a mouth as a bell.

In James’s most complex images, the two registers are deliberately combined, and the resulting incompatible amalgamations are subtly highlighted. For instance, after Mrs. Gereth has transferred the spoils from Poynton to Ricks, the first home appears to be figured as a dismembered body: “the amputation, as she called it, had been performed” (79). The amputation seems to refer to the removal of the objects from their integrating stem—that is, from Poynton. Yet the passage goes on to suggest something far less simple. “Her leg had come off,” James writes; “she had now begun to stump along with the lovely wooden substitute; she would stump for life, and what her young friend was to come and admire was the beauty of her movement and the noise she made about the house.” In this sentence, which immediately follows the one previously quoted, it is not Poynton’s but Mrs. Gereth’s leg that has come off. Thus the amputation described is not of the things from Poynton, but of Poynton from Mrs. Gereth. It seems that her body originally encompassed the house; the house was removed, and Mrs. Gereth received a substitute leg consisting of the new house, Ricks, with the old things in it. This image implies that from the start of the novel, “Mrs. Gereth” denoted an amalgamated body of objects, house, and human limbs. Despite “her” disparate components, they are figured as so tightly tethered that amputation, rather than separation, describes the violence of their dissolution. Mrs. Gereth may thus constitute a single entity, but her parts are not related by similarity or essence.

A series of metaphors describing Fleda similarly involves her human body with architectural elements. Following their scene with Mrs. Brigstock, Owen tells Fleda that she “behaved like a brick” but then complains that he finds her “only a stone” (159). When she softens against his body, their physical connection is figured as a dismantling of her stony façade: “He had cleared the high wall at a bound . . . it was as if a whirlwind had come and gone, laying low the great false front she had built up stone by stone” (161). She begins as material elements, only to use them to obfuscate her desire for Owen. Yet within a few pages, the stones have exceeded her control and are being used against her: she feels “as if [Mrs. Gereth], stone by stone, were piling some fatal mass upon her breast. She had the sense of being buried alive” (175). She who was lately brick, then stone, then building a surrounding of stones, becomes a victim of stones. More precisely, her feelings become stones, crushing she who was lately masonry but now seems to be a softly breathing human body. The sequence bears no narrative arc; the images are so thickly layered that they become irreconcilable, fragmented figures without a fundamental grounding sense. Stones interrupt Fleda’s character in various senses, rendering her not an evolving, unified character but an entity with several relations to the material world—with several qualities of materiality that take precedence at different times. In Poynton, it is not impossible for Fleda to both be and be suffocated by the same material, nor is it impossible for Mrs. Gereth to use her arms to dismantle the house (“I lifted tons with my own arms” [83]) that will then turn out to have been her leg. James puts pressure on the integral opposition of persons and things until it gives way, offering us instead a conglomerate heap of teeth and limbs and stumps and stones, a heap that is as unsettlingly disorganized as Poynton is meticulously arranged. Various amalgamations of the heap act, and [End Page 59] are acted upon, to produce and develop the movements of the plot: to think and to speak, to give and take, to desire and be desired and to love and refuse. Fleda is said to fall into, and then become part of, one such heap when she confronts the likelihood that Owen has returned to Mona: she has “the sense of a sudden drop from a height at which she had had all things beneath her. She had nothing beneath her now; she herself was at the bottom of the heap” (168). Part of the heap—of all the things that used to be beneath her—Fleda nevertheless goes on, imagining what has become of Owen, traveling back to Mrs. Gereth.6

It may appear that I am confusing the metaphorical and the literal registers of Poynton in arguing that Fleda can sometimes be a gun, that Mrs. Gereth becomes amalgamated with her various residences, or that the repeated invocation of stones renders Fleda partially architectural. Yet such confusion seems warranted by James’s text, which knits the two registers together more than it keeps them sharply divided. Such interconnection is evident, for instance, when Fleda metonymizes the original furnishings of Ricks as the maiden-aunt who previously resided there: “I thought you had got rid of the maiden-aunt,” she says, to which Mrs. Gereth responds, “She was stored in an empty barn . . . I’ve simply, in my extremity, fished her out again” (202). James asks us to see the dead woman “fished out” of a barn in order to follow the plot, to make sense of Mrs. Gereth’s act of redecoration.

The metaphorical and the literal also emerge as interconnected in the text’s engagement with Poynton’s spoils. To read of Mrs. Gereth’s curatorial skill is to want to see her things, yet as readers of Poynton cannot help but note (often with frustration), one never knows what all the objects are. Brown argues that this is because “the things at Poynton hardly appear in the novel’s visual register,” which leads him to conclude, “James was writing a novel about things, but without things” (147, 149). Yet the novel’s presentation of things is more intricate than Brown allows. As Victoria Coulson has observed, the omission of things that characters see is not necessarily an omission of things. In her analysis, the novel emphasizes other sensory ways of responding to the material environment (328). Further, the inclusion of objects as metaphors, especially of furniture and masonry, situates many things—if not Poynton’s things—in the novel’s visual register. It may be confusing to envision a character as a brick, and it may not satisfy an appetite for a catalog of the spoils themselves, but James almost seems to respond to the reader’s curiosity about the latter with an abundance of images like the former. He complements narrative omission with metaphorical plenty.7

Integration of the metaphorical and the literal is evident, as well, in the novel’s ending. As Savoy suggests, the novel’s several instances of “hanging fire” effectively culminate in the fire that destroys Poynton (63). It is almost as if the repeatedly invoked figure slips into the conditions of the plot. In James’s other texts of the period, a similar slippage occurs when the use of “hanging fire” is followed by additional inflammatory descriptions. For example, toward the end of What Maisie Knew, “Mrs. Wix hung fire, though the flame in her face burned brighter; then she became capable of saying: ‘Her ladyship’s kind! She did what I didn’t expect’” (187). In addition to spelling out that while Mrs. Wix hung fire, she wasn’t capable of speaking—she was not calculating but suffering her delay—the sentences suggest that one mention of fire initiates another. Once Mrs. Wix is not “firing” her speech, the most apt way to describe her blushing is via the register of fire, even though such overlap mixes [End Page 60] metaphors irredeemably: it renders Mrs. Wix not firing and firing, gun and human, at the same time.8

In Poynton, the conclusion echoes Fleda’s hung fire not only through verbal repetition but by enhancing her ontological instability. Having been gun and brick, stone and suffocating body, she appears to become such an endangered body again. As she steps off the train and into the station, the Poynton fire, although a mile off, appears engulfing. James’s word to describe it is “pervading” (212). He writes that “the air was full of [an extraordinary smell]”; “the smoke was in her eyes”; “the wind seemed to hurl [the smoke] in her face”; “everywhere she met the smoke” (212–13). These images suggest that Fleda will be at least as suffocated as she was in response to Mrs. Gereth’s metaphorical piling of stones, and probably much more so, given the immediacy of the conditions. Yet what is strange about James’s narration is that he never indicates that she is in physical—even human—distress. He notes that “a great wave of smoke half-choked” Fleda and the station-master and that, subsequently, “she felt sick” (212–13). Nonetheless, despite the smell in the air, the smoke in her eyes and in her face, Fleda never coughs or squints; she never protects herself against the assault. Even her feeling of sickness may be interpreted as a response to the destruction of Poynton rather than her own, presumably infiltrated, body, since it is followed by her question to the station-master, “Do you mean that great house is lost?” (213). The reader observes Fleda confronting the news about the lost house, and the end of her involvement with it, but not the smoke that violently surrounds her.

What are we to make of a Fleda who, in the midst of such physical danger, is hardly affected by it? We could say that James emphasizes her mental reflections over her body, exploiting her fictional nature to ignore the suffering an actual human would have undergone. James would thereby manifest a division analogous to those I have tracked above: Fleda would become split, so that sometimes she is a being who breathes and sometimes she is a being who thinks. Or, more imaginatively, we might surmise that Fleda has so entwined her fate with that of the house that, like Mrs. Gereth, she is ultimately part-Poynton. She would then mimic the experience of the burning house—she would feel herself being extinguished, her story abruptly ending. In that case, the fire she “hung” might be realized in the house’s ultimate destruction.9 But however we make sense of James’s final pages, it seems impossible to uncritically associate Fleda with a person.

In the final analysis, understanding the history of “hanging fire,” as well as the twist James gives to the phrase, opens up a series of alternative referents for “Fleda,” and for any of James’s many hesitating characters. James seems not to have conceived of his characters as static persons—which is not simply to say that they change but to assert that they resist assuming any one ontological designation.10 While it is possible to imagine, throughout Poynton, a single human form that answers to “Fleda,” the text invites a much richer, much less restricted set of options. From one page to the next, she and her counterparts undergo fantastic shifts in form. Persons turn out to be involved with things fundamentally and inextricably, and their often-asserted opposition dissolves into a more complicated series of alternations (mind or gun) and amalgamations (body and house). With regard to James’s later work as a whole, untethering characters from their assumed human forms allows us to profoundly reconsider what it means for them to speak and think and act and be. [End Page 61]

Shari Goldberg
Franklin & Marshall College


1. For a visual image of Parker’s sculpture, see <http://www.icaboston.org/exhibitions/permanent-collection/artists/parker/>.

2. The Oxford English Dictionary records “to hang fire” as part of the entry of the verb “to hang”; the first instance of the phrase documented in the current online edition is from 1782.

4. The Rolling Stones appear to follow James’s lead—I do not know whether they actually do so—in their 1981 song “Hang Fire,” which includes lines that are anomalous in the same way his are: “we hang fire” and “I hang fire.” According to the Urban Dictionary, the song has inspired “an entirely new term. Basically to chill” as in “Hey man, let’s hang fire later tonight” (“hang fire”).

5. Cameron, to whom Otten acknowledges a debt, seems to me to come closer than Otten does in pinpointing the dissolutions that James inherits. She writes that Melville’s formulations cause “the reader’s mind [to be] unmoored or dislodged from any sense of fixed character” (65). The Fleda who is both mind and gun poses precisely this difficulty, in demanding a new way to figure what constitutes a character.

6. See also the confusion of Fleda with the interior of a house in chapter twenty: “Her trouble occupied some quarter of her soul that had closed its doors for the day and shut out even her own sense of it; she might perhaps have heard something if she had pressed her ear to a partition. Instead of that she sat with her patience in a cold still chamber from which she could look out in quite another direction” (SP 193). Fleda chooses not to listen through a door to the protests of her own soul, but what alternative seat does she select? The usual association of the interior of a mind and the interior of a house falls apart here as Fleda moves around the house that she would seem to be.

7. See also McBride’s analysis of Spoils, in which she proposes “interlevel reading,” which “attends to the ways that discursive levels ‘speak back’ to one another—the ways that narration (or style) may resemble plot but also fundamentally resist it” (250). I am emphasizing resemblance rather than resistance here, but I agree with McBride as to the necessity, as well as the challenge, of regarding style and plot as inextricable.

8. A similar mixing of metaphors appears in The Awkward Age (1899), in an unusual instance of “hanging fire” that occurs in narrative: “The old man, as [Vanderbank’s] response for a minute hung fire, took his turn at sitting down, and then Vanderbank stopped before him with a face in which something had been still more brightly kindled” (44). The “still more brightly kindled” logically relates to the less bright kindling that produces the hang fire.

9. Fleda’s unaffected inhalation of Poynton’s smoke may also be read as positing a temporary conglomerate, insofar as the smoke seems to enter Fleda without violating her. Bennett relies on nineteenth-century writers—Nietzsche and Thoreau—to articulate a perspective that allows nonhuman bodies to be consumed by human bodies without thereby losing their own lively material tendencies. She writes: “For Nietzsche and for Thoreau consumption is a two-way street, an encounter between bodies human and nonhuman” (47). Accordingly, “in the eating encounter, all bodies are shown to be but temporary congealments of a materiality that is a process of becoming, is hustle and flow punctuated by sedimentation and substance” (49). The smoke Fleda inhales can hardly be construed as nourishing, yet the two may be read collectively as a “temporary congealment” of material: her body, and Poynton’s body, as a single, but not necessarily enduring, collective. For another approach to situating James in relation to new materialisms, see Moon.

10. I follow Posnock in discerning in James an attraction to the inconsistent. Posnock observes that it is “incongruities that mark the texture of James’s genius” (4), and he outlines the political vision thereby suggested: “James’s heterogeneity translates into something resembling an expressivist pluralism that disperses power and rigid identification with one role or place and replaces them with a dynamic of shifting involvements that resists finitude and definition while breeding possibility and spontaneity” (76). Poynton, as I have read it, could only model such a dispersed, spontaneous logic of affiliation, for Fleda could never rigidly identify as human or as thing.


The Awkward Age. New York: Penguin, 1983. Print.
SP—The Spoils of Poynton. New York: Penguin, 1987. Print.
RH—Roderick Hudson. Henry James: Novels 1871–1880. New York: Library of America, 1983. 163–512. Print.
What Maisie Knew. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.


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