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The Golden Bowl – Henry James



Posted May 6, 2016 by

The Golden Bowl – Henry James – 1904

Posted by Sterling on 23/9/2014, 23:29:54

After six weeks or so, I’ve finally finished The Golden Bowl. It was, I regret to say, quite a disappointment. I found James’ other two late novels, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove extraordinary. Indeed, The Ambassadors is on my All-Time Top Ten list, with TWOTD not far behind. The difference is, for me, that the former two novels had huge emotional pay-offs that made the intense work and concentration required by late James worthwhile. Not so, The Golden Bowl. I wandered through page after page of impossibly complex sentences with more dependent clauses than Santa’s tax returns for…nothing. Well, maybe not nothing, but certainly not very much.

The concept of the novel is very subtle. You have a quartet of characters who combine in all four male-female pairings (provided that you see the father-daughter attachment as unnaturally close, almost incestuous.) Intelligent critics who should know better, such as Gore Vidal, seem to have a tendency to side either with Mr. Verver and Maggie or with the Prince and Charlotte. James, I believe, wants us to see all four sympathetically and all four unsympathetically. He wants to balance our emotions so carefully that we can not finally decide who is in the right, or even with whom we should sympathize. He succeeded with me almost too well. I eventually came to the point of not caring a fig for any of them.

I wanted to finish it, because I wanted to have read James’ three great, late classics. I’m not getting any younger. I’m not sure that I should do that again, i.e., push on reading a book that I’m no longer enjoying. The last third, after the breaking of the bowl, was pretty much a slog. Several nights I picked it up, read a paragraph, and set it down again. I think that it is probably a great novel. It is surely my loss that I was unable to respond to it.


Posted by Steven on 25/9/2014, 8:52:18, in reply to “The Golden Bowl”

I enjoyed The Golden Bowl quite a bit more than you did, but I would still rank the three novels in the same order you have. It’s been about 10 years since I read it, so I don’t recall it in detail, but your observations about the balanced view of the four principal characters sounds right to me.

That thought about “not getting any younger” bothers me some times as well. Should I be reading a minor work, no matter what the reason that I picked it up, when there are some great classics that I still haven’t tried? (I.e. the bucket list we were discussing earlier)


Posted by Joffre on 25/9/2014, 21:02:27, in reply to “Re: The Golden Bowl”

I’m not such a big fan of Henry James. I’ve never read The Golden Bowl. I’ve read The Ambassadors three times, and I’ve read Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, Washington Square, and The Turn of the Screw twice each. The most enjoyable for me is Washington Square which James himself was apparently unhappy with. I found it difficult to get through the second reading of The Wings of the Dove. I probably will read it again sometime though.

I seldom read a book I don’t feel is worth some effort, so even if I find it tough to get through a book, I’ll probably read it again. This is more true of books by Henry James than of some recent prize winner. At the same time, I don’t feel I have to read all the good books an author wrote. I have no plans to read The Golden Bowl.

I don’t have any system, and I don’t see why anyone should. I usually work through books and usually read them again, but not always. I suppose you can feel like doing it with one book but not with the next. And maybe nobody likes all the great books. It’s a great relief to me that Tolstoy didn’t like Shakespeare, but he wrote that he had tried hard to appreciate it. With an author of such stature as Henry James, I try to appreciate it even if I find it difficult.


golden bowl

ReadLit Team


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