Henry James and the Question of Evil

Autumn 2016-2017

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John Banville

I shall compare and contrast the two works, which in my opinion have themes and aspects closely in common. HJ regarded the tendency of human beings to exploit and tyrannise others – the noble ones, the weak, the innocent – as among the great wickednesses. Both the novel and the novella deal with appropriation and ‘possession’. In The Portrait, Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle conspire to rob the noble-minded but overly self-willed Isabel Archer of her freedom and her dignity. In The Turn, ostensibly the spirits of the deceased Peter Quint and Miss Jessel seek to possess the hearts and souls of the children Myles and Flora – but do the ‘ghosts’ exist, or are they the fevered invention of the unnamed governess who narrates the story, who is afire with unrequitable longing for the children’s handsome uncle? I shall consider this in light of HJ’s own remarkable family – his brilliant but erratic father, his loved and envied brother William, one of America’s greatest philosophers, and their highly intelligent but neglected and neurasthenic sister Alice who, when she was facing an early death, wrote to William to plead: ‘When I am gone, pray don’t think of me simply as a creature who might have been something else…’ All the Jameses had a morbidly acute sense of the darkness underlying life; Henry Senior and William both suffered what in Swedenborgian terms is known as a ‘vastation’, an involuntary, brief but horrifying glimpse into the depths of an evil abyss, while Alice, who all her adult life suffered from nervous attacks and prostrations, would sometimes signer her letters, ‘Yours very truly, Invalid.” These themes and sub-themes I shall place within a wider consideration of the nature of evil, posing the question, is there such a thing as evil, or are there only evil deeds?