Contexts | Point of view / scenic

( back to index of contexts )

These closely related terms refer to innovations in the art of fiction by Henry James. Long considered a transitional figure between the more traditional, realist Victorian novel and the more experimental, subjective novel of the twentieth century, James was in his time the inspiration for a generation of novelists who looked upon him as an undisputed “master” (a favorite nickname for James) of novelistic form. The new generation of novelists included Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Rebecca West, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Crane who — at least in the early part of their careers at the turn and beginning of the twentieth century — wrote what critics deem “Impressionistic” or “Jamesian” novels. When, for instance, Conrad famously stated that the purpose of the novelist is “by the power of the written word, to make you [i.e., the reader] hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see,” he was echoing James’s principles of composition. These principles are, in turn, thought to be “Impressionistic” since, like the paintings of French Impressionists such as Monet and Renoir, they attempt to register the subjective impressions of an individual. For James novelistic action (what happens) is not so significant as the perception of novelistic action (how one experiences what happens). The key for the novelist, he thought, was to select a “center of consciousness” — by which he meant a character from whose perspective the reader will experience the events of the narrative. In What Maisie Knew (1897) the young girl Maisie herself acts as James’s center of consciousness. The events following upon the divorce of Maisie’s parents are thus told from Maisie’s point of view and, according to James, gain interest because of her point of view. This approach to fiction was highly influential in James’s time and beyond. Novels such as Conrad’s Lord Jim (1901), West’s The Return of the Soldier (1916), and Greene’s The Ministry of Fear (1943) all register this influence in distinct, admittedly idiosyncratic ways. Though, for all the claims for James as a “transitional modernist,” nearly as many major English-language novelists of the twentieth century reacted against James’s example. Neither D. H. Lawrence nor E. M. Forster, to cite two prominent cases, claimed to have much use for James’s advice to young writers. For Lawrence and Forster the point of view technique is too restrictive and formalistic; it locks the author into a particular character’s perspective. They preferred a looser form, one they could adapt more directly to the material at hand and, in general, scoffed at rules and principles for writing novels. The popular social and science fiction novelist H. G. Wells engaged James directly in a debate about this, concluding in the voice of the narrator of his 1904 novel Tono-Bungay that “My ideas of a novel all through are comprehensive rather than austere.” Similarly Forster claimed that in James’s novel The Ambassadors (1903) substance was sacrificed to style.

Still, even James’s critics concede that in his best works of fiction he employed his innovative techniques to powerful effect. For James, moreover, the main analogy for his technique is not with painting (despite critics’ subsequent use of the “Impressionist” label) but with drama. His serious and ambitious goal as a novelist was to secure the immediacy of action in the theater: an action unfolds on stage, then something else happens suddenly (dramatically) without allowing an audience member to shape her reaction. This unpredictability is what James admired in the theater of his time, especially in the intensely psychological plays of Henrik Ibsen, and felt that traditional novelistic narration — which typically narrates a past action in a retrospective mode — fails to attain. Instead of describing “dead” actions (“In 1856 . . .”), James hoped to present “live” actions. To use a conventional distinction: he meant to “show” actions rather than “tell” about them since the “telling” makes it seem as if the actions have already happened and introduces a series of mediating factors — the form of narration, the voice of the narrator, the intervening time, memory, etc. Of course what James calls his “scenic” method, a novelistic technique designed to mirror the immediacy of stage effects (i.e., based on the narrative unit of the scene), is much more difficult for a novelist — as opposed to a playwright — to achieve. And its use in fiction is always somewhat artificial. Nevertheless, when combined with point of view techniques, the scenic may reproduce the very conditions of consciousness — how our minds process experience, how our understanding of the significance of that experience is always somewhat belated, etc. At the end of his career, between 1909 and 1911, James constructed the New York Edition of his selected works — a kind of deluxe special edition, attaching well-known prefaces to correspond to a fiction or set of fictions. These prefaces now stand as a monumental exercise in literary criticism, providing in particular insights into the creative process. Here James justified his techniques by explaining their evolution over several decades. In the preface to What Maisie Knew, for example, he explains why he placed the consciousness of a young girl at the center of his novel. He seems to have welcomed the constructional challenge of a young consciousness, since “Small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them.” Perhaps it is the task of the reader of James’s novel to assign terms and meanings to Maisie’s perceptions.

( back to index of contexts )