“A novel is in its broadest definition a persona, a direct impression of life.” -Henry James’s concept of “The Art of Fiction”


Henry James who dedicated his life to the writings of novels and short stories was formidable literary critic as well. He wrote much on the art of fiction and what he has written in his essays and prefaces is most illuminating to a student of novels. Among the critical essays that set forth the views of Henry James must be mentioned criticism and The Art of Fiction a controversy with H.G. Wells whom, in spite of their close friendship, Henry James differed of views on literature and art.

Henry James has a high conception of art and did not regard art as a thin separate from life. He was of opinion that life and art are inextricably fused and that it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance and it knows no substitute whatever for the form and beauty of its process. True to this great awareness of this high seriousness of art, Henry James gave it a priestly devotion and spent all his energy in the service of art. He thought it unfortunate that the English novel, up to his time had honour of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison. He felt the need of active discussion of the rules of fiction, of technique. Art lies upon discussion upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety, of attempt, upon the exchange of views and comparison of stand points.

Of all art forms Henry James felt the novel to be the most magnificent. If offered to it’s devoted few restrictions and innumerable opportunities. The other arts he writes in the Art of Fiction in comparison appear confined and hampered. The various conditions under which they are exercised are so rigid and definite. Fiction according to James demanded one thing. Primarily from the Writer - Sincerity that James himself practiced the art he had chosen as his own with the utmost sincerity is proof of the integrity with which he translated into act his precepts.

He was a realist, but not one of those realists who believed in coining in their books a pilling up of drab details picked up from life. At the sometime he did not believe in novels having no relevance to everyday life. But he did not want to copy life in a journalist fashion. The novelist is also an interpreter of life with the power of observation of is a faculty of paramount importance in a novelist here is something far more important.

The themes of James’s novels of course come from life. He was a close observer of the social stratum in which he moved and his note-books were full of materials taken but from actual life which awaited the expert handling of the writer But having drawn his idea from real life Henry James went on to work it out into an elaborate web whose distinguishing feature was not superficial verisimilitude but design. Form was of supreme importance to him. Form was part and parcel with the material. James’ admiration Flaubert was based on latter’s fine blending of form and material in Notes on Novelist he wrote thus praising the French novelist. The form is in itself as interesting as active as much of the essence of the subject as the idea and yet so close is its fit and so temperate  that it catch  at no moment on any errand of its own.

Henry James had a passion for order, design and unity. He disliked introducing into novels different points of view as this shattered the classical sense of unity. But unity of design was compatible with division into component parts. For instance in The Golden Bowl we have a unified study of broken marriage which however falls into two logical divisions on section dealing with conditions that brought about the rupture and the other presenting the attempt to cope with the situation thus created. In his insistence on design and unity Henry James felt he was doing a great service to the novel for he believed that the novel so far was structurally chaotic. He thoroughly disapproved of the careless shifts in point of view from that of the first person to the third. He was also against the novelist letting his personality intrude into the novel at any stage. Detachment and complete objectivity are the things that he priced. Perhaps he learned that value of these from Flaubert. In any case novelist in English has so resolutely devoted himself to creating a work of art that is self sustaining or so completely affected himself from its record. Shakespeare is not harder to find in his plays that James in his novels. When the structure of a novel was completed not scaffolding to remind the reader of the builder, Henry James did not care also to point out a moral or to provide a handy guide for personal conduct. He scorned the idea that the novelist’s chief function was to entertain by means of exciting adventures and comic interludes.

The old fashioned distinction between the novel of character and novel of incidents is not accepted by Henry James. Neither was he inclined to accept Brone’s finely drawn distinction between the novel and them. According to him there are only two kinds of novels bad and good novels, as there are bad pictures and good pictures, that is only distinction in which I see many meanings, and I can as little imagine speaking of a novel of character as I can imagine speaking of a picture of character.

The Art of Fiction remains a kind of landmark in the serious criticism of Fiction. Its importance lies chiefly in the fact that here Henry James dismissed once and for all the aged indictment of the novel as frivolous and immoral and established its importance as an art from. There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing and feeling it to which the plants of the novelist may not offer a place you have only to remember the talents as dissimilar as these of Alexander Dumas and Jane Austen. Do not think too much about optimism and pessimist try and catch the color of life itself. His own life long professional dedication to this art form justifies the high reverence he has for it. James was an experimenter in the craft of fiction. He explored new ways of seeing and shaping life through new ways of telling a story. James preferred not to render events, but rather someone’s impression of events. In his late fiction especially, the story is told through the eyes of an interested, usually perceptive observer. James felt this made the work more compelling since the reader sees only what the observer sees and follows the workings of the observer’s mind as he or she tries to understand the meanings of various appearances in the outside world. Typically, these appearances are misleading. The “action” in the novels consists of the observer gradually penetrating appearances and comprehending the truth.

James’s technique of dramatizing thought profoundly altered the history of the novel. His influence can be seen in the works of such authors as Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. 

Ardhendu De


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