The Golden Bowl / Henry James

Published in 1904, The Golden Bowl was James’ last completed novel. Set in England, it is a complex study of a marriage complicated by adultery. It centers around the tangled relationship between a daughter and her father and their respective spouses.

It is a novel thin on dialogue, focusing instead on the consciousness of the book’s two main characters. Prince Amerigo is an impoverished Italian nobleman in London who marries Maggie Verver. She is the only child of the widower, Adam Verver, a wealthy American financier and art collector. Before the marriage, a third person is introduced into the scene, Charlotte Stant, a young American who was a former mistress of the Prince when he was living in Rome. Maggie and Charlotte have been friends since childhood, although Maggie has no idea that her friend has had a past relationship with Amerigo.

To complicate matters, Maggie, fearing her father is feeling lonely after her marriage to the Prince, convinces him to propose to Charlotte. Charlotte accepts, even though she is still enamored with the Prince. This presents Charlotte and Amerigo the opportunity to reignite their affair. As Maggie begins to suspect the pair, her fears are heightened when she buys a golden bowl and learns from the seller that Charlotte and the Prince had together admired the piece, considering it as Charlotte’s wedding gift for Maggie’s marriage to Amerigo. Since the two were together without her knowledge, this confirms to Maggie that her husband has been unfaithful to her.

James clearly intends this golden bowl to be a representation of Maggie’s and Amerigo’s marriage. While a lovely piece, it has a flaw that means the bowl can be easily broken. When Maggie confronts the Prince about the affair, the two collude to keep Adam and Charlotte in the dark about her discovery of the secret. Amerigo breaks off his relationship with Charlotte without informing her why. This leads to Charlotte and Adam deciding to relocate to America, leaving Maggie and Amerigo behind in England. At the story’s end, James provides no hint of whether Maggie and the Prince will be able to survive as a couple in the absence of Adam and Charlotte.

There are many who praise this novel’s intense dramatization of the stresses inherent in married life. It’s a vivid portrayal of how a wife and husband may attempt to sidestep a problem when the integrity of their relationship is threatened. And I understand why this book has won high praise through the years. James is a master of creating dialogue that suggests one thing on the surface, and quite another in the currents beneath. Even so, his prose is so plodding at times that I despaired of any action actually taking place. The marriage of Maggie and Amerigo struck me as so suffocating that I longed for an explosion that would finally let some air into their lives. To James’ credit, I did begin to care about the characters in this book. But reader beware: the book’s rewards come only after one’s patience has been seriously tested.

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