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The International Theme: The Conflict of National Types in the Tales of Henry James

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 1999 28 Pages

American Studies - Literature

Excerpt

Contents

Introduction

1. Madame de Mauves

2. Daisy Miller: A Study

3. An International Episode

Conclusion

Selected Bibliography

Introduction

Among the central motifs that can be traced throughout Henry James’s career as a writer is his concern with the social and moral differences between the New World and Europe (mainly represented by England, Italy and France), which he called the “Americano-European legend” and is otherwise frequently referred to as the “international theme”. It reflects the mutual misunderstandings of Americans and Europeans, often by following the same basic pattern, i.e. the innocent and naive American girl who journeys to the Old Country and encounters a corrupt, mostly rigid set of values which its advocates attempt to subjugate her to. Usually the heroine struggles to protect her integrity, her individualism and personal freedom against a society that strikes her as oppressive, anti-democratic or, as is the case with Madame de Mauves, as immoral, and undergoes a changing process in which she abandons her romantic vision and nostalgic longing for a quaint and picturesque Europe.

Although in his exploration of the international conflict “between the distinctively American and the distinctively European outlook” ‘innocence’ is invariably associated with the American side, whereas ‘knowledge’ is mostly to be found on the European, the satire and irony in the study of national characters is aimed at both sides. Sometimes showing sympathy for the helpless American outsider abroad, who is not at all prepared to deal with the complexity of cultural life in Europe, James at other times sympathizes with the European facing the uncultivated, socially ignorant and traditionless American (of which Daisy Miller’s mother seems to be the representative model), thus giving us an all in all tremendously balanced and superb portrayal of the ideosyncratic manners of both sides of the Atlantic.

I have selected three early ‘tales’, as James called them, which I am going to examine - in chronological order as the events appear - with regard to the question of how the “international theme” manifests itself in them, focussing on the different codes of conduct pertaining to America and the respective European country where the story is set, as well as the characters’ inherent traits as far as they are relevant of the ‘type’ James wished to illustrate.

The tales I have chosen are Madame de Mauves, Daisy Miller and An International Episode. All quotes referring to either one of these stories are indicated in round brackets in the text of this essay.

1 Madame de Mauves

One of James’s early short novels dealing with the “international theme” is Madame de Mauves which was created during his stay in Bad Homburg in the summer of 1873 and published in the periodical The Galaxy in the following year. As for the origins of the story he does not mention a traceable source which might have put the idea for this tale into his head. In the preface that he wrote forty years later for the New York Edition he even confesses to almost not remember anything about its making other than having conceived it at an old German inn, where he “was visited by the gentle Euphemia”[1] while spending the summer in the Taunus hills. It is, however, a very carefully woven story that like many other works of his early period reflects the impression of Europe’s cultural life on the American traveller and explores the different values and moral standards of the Old and the New World.

The heroine of the story is Euphemia de Mauves, an inexperienced American girl and daughter of a well-to-do widow, who has been reared in a Parisian convent, where she nurtures the romantic ideal of marrying an aristocratic Frenchman with a long pedigree. It is only after she has attached herself to the impoverished Count de Mauves, who married her merely for her wealth than because of true affection, that she is forced to face the fact that a long family tradition may cast an exquisite and exotic light on a gentleman but is by no means a guarantee for the goodness of his character, let alone one’s own personal happiness. This is the state of affairs when she meets Longmore, a young American travelling the continent, who on first meeting her in St. Germain is immediately captivated by her beauty and aloofness and through whose biased eyes the story is primarily related - apart from the additions of the omniscient narrator. His sympathy for her plight and the admiration for the strength which she shows in enduring the incessant infidelity of her husband soons turns into a restrained love which appears to be promoted by the count since its reciprocation would signal Euphemia’s acknowledgment of the different moral code of French society and thus absolve him from any feelings of guilt and inferiority he ever so often experiences in view of her highly moral conduct.

Madame Clairin, his widowed sister who Euphemia went to school with and who introduced her to Richard de Mauves, is portrayed as equally immoral and worldly as her brother, which becomes evident in her unsuccessful attempt to enter into an intimate relationship with Longmore - dominated solely by financial interests - and her encouraging him to have an affair with Madame de Mauves to help deliver the count from his bad conscience. The suggestion of his “metallic” (247) sister, “that dreadful woman” (250), whose disdainful attitude towards his prim puritanism he abhors as much as the adultery of her brother, is not translated into action, for although both are attracted to each other, Madame de Mauves is resolved to remain faithful to her irrevocable moral principles and pleads with him to renounce his love. Longmore’s strong desire for a relationship that goes beyond a merely platonic friendship is stifled by her rigid virtues and Euphemia’s pronounced fear of disturbing her peace of mind, the fear of pain and suffering that seems to be inevitably connected with the end of her self deception:

“‘I’m a dreadful coward about having to suffer or to bleed. I’ve always tried to believe that – without base concessions – such extremities may always somehow be dodged or indefinitely postponed. I should be willing to buy myself off, from having ever to be overwhelmed, by giving up – well, any amusement you like.’ She lived evidently in nervous apprehension of being fatally convinced – of seeing to the end of her deception.” (257)

At her request Longmore returns to America and it is not until two years have elapsed that he hears from her again. He learns, through their mutual aquaintance Mrs. Draper, that the count had eventually repented the ill-treatment of his wife that he had always perceived as dull and as an utter strain to be with, but with who he had suddenly fallen in love again. His ardent love and begging for forgiveness, “which she had inexorably refused” (331), had apparently led him to entirely change his way of life and, when realizing that she would neither reciprocate his feelings nor grant him absolution for his past wrong-doings, had caused him to commit suicide.

At first glance, the story can fairly simply be read as a detailed account of an unhappy international marriage in which the heroine’s moral uprightness finally enables her to take revenge on her husband for his former misdeeds. In doing so, Madame de Mauves has our slightly uneasy admiration and sympathy and even though her cruel condemnation entailing the somewhat melodramatic ending of the count killing himself may strike one as a bit insensitive, we cannot shake the feeling that she is justified in acting like she does and the villain deserves his fate. However, when we examine this tale more closely, things prove to be not quite so unambiguous, especially when it comes to the question if the moral standards – embodied in the four principal characters - are to be understood as being truly representative of their respective countries, or if they are rather a satirical portrayal of stereotypes that mainly exist in the consciousness of an extremely partial and prejudiced Longmore.

Euphemia’s most obvious shortcoming responsible for the predicament in which she finds herself after having married the count is her inability to distinguish between real life and her superficial ideal of what it should be like. During the time she spends at the convent school, her reading of “Ultramontane works of fiction (...) in which the hero was always an Ligitimist vicomte who fought duels by the dozen but went twice a month to confession” (225) conjures up a romantic delusion of Europe largely founded on the picture the contemporary novels that are admitted to the library draw of the French nobility. She has got a very detailed conception with regard to the surroundings she wants to spend her life in and an elaborate image of the perfect future husband, who, as a matter of course, is to accept her without much ado. Her unrealistic expectations are backed up by the possession of a large fortune, which she is prepared to employ as a means to attain her goal, possibly even to convince a potentially reluctant gentleman to marry her by generously bestowing her wealth on him: “[She] thinks that France is for sale and that an American girl is sure to have the best of it provided she only has money enough - which she has.”[2]

When she is invited to the castle in Auvergne by her sly and handsome schoolmate Marie de Mauves, who she admires for all the qualities she considers to be so typically French, as well as for her aristocratic descent, she is immediately enchanted by its atmosphere and appearance which perfectly matches her associations she derived from the literature that she read at the convent. Her innocence that hitherto manifested itself in her relation to Marie, who designed the three weeks’ stay with “the subtlest considerations” (227) and often uses her friendship with Euphemia to her own advantage, is instantly recognized by the old Madame de Mauves who, even though not explicitly cautioning her against an attachment with her impoverished grandson, points out the consequences she will have to face if she wants to spend her life in France. She advises the American girl not to listen too much to her conscience, which would be impeding her first duty – that of being amiable - and tells her the only two ways how she can spend her life happily in the de Mauves family are to either play the role of the devote (this she cannot do, because she is too clever) or take life as a game of skill that she must try to win. Euphemia, however, fails to understand the meaning of these words and in her “angelic innocence” (232) falls victim to Richard de Mauves who does not need to exert himself overly to make an impression on her, since she projects all the features of her vision on him, making him grow more and more towards her cherished ideal: “Euphemia studied with noiseless diligence what she supposed to be the ‘character’ of M. de Mauves, and the more she looked the more fine lights and shades she seemed to behold in this masterpiece of nature.” (233)

Driven by the opportunity to settle his debts and secure his financial future by marrying a rich American girl, he proposes to her in what he mistakes to be the American way, i.e. without previous parental assent or witnesses, which neither finds the approval of his grandmother nor Mrs. Cleve. While the former criticises its not having been done in a fashion becoming the social position of the de Mauves family the latter fears that her daughter is marrying into a dubious and penniless French family and therefore refuses to give her consent. Living most of the time in Nice she seems to consider herself an expert on French morals and duly condems those of Richard de Mauves as being horrible. But when she goes on to say “I know the type, my dear” (241), anticipating the indifference and infidelity she apparently finds characteristic of the French husband, it becomes clear that she is in fact very un-Europeanized and applies the American, democratic standard of marital happiness. Her long stay in France has not contributed to change her American code of morals; she is still just a tourist who has not immersed in European culture but looks on it as an outsider, as someone, who thinks of the French in terms of ‘types’ that she disapproves of, if they are not in accord with American cultural standards.

In spite of the attempt to discourage her daughter from the attachment, Euphemia marries her hero two years later and plunges herself headlong into an unhappy relationship that she endures in quiet desperation. It is at this point that Longmore first meets her through Mrs. Draper, the quintessential American lady, whose summary of Madame de Mauves’s plight expresses a point of view that claims the moral superiority of “even the lightest of us” over a “shining sinful Frenchman” (222). This is a stereotypical notion that is equally shared by her compatriot, who on his meeting the count without a tangible cause takes an immediate dislike to him and who he stigmatizes as being the reason for the innocent American girl’s misery: “‘What else is possible,’ he put it, ‘for a sweet American girl who marries an unholy foreigner?’”(220) This observation is so unpolished and crude, yet typical of the inexperienced Longmore who has not yet been absorbed by French society, that in the same breath it reveals itself as being satirical, exposing his bias as well as the unreliability of his perceptions. Adding to his resentment is his linguistic ineptitude, his poor language skills that are far from being as accomplished as those of the count, who effortlessly shifts to a fluent English, when his wife introduces Longmore as a fellow-countryman of hers.

Determined to console Madame de Mauves, he pays her a visit, in which course he is struck by her self-imposed confinement to the pavilion and the artificial garden. He notices the lack of contact to the world and the life that surrounds her, which is one of her most prominent attributes: “She will not, like the French, let reality push her into skepticism and easy cynicism. She ignores reality and retreats into idealistic renunciation and ends with nothing but a dutiful, magnificent, cold conscience.“[3] But Longmore’s visit also confirms his preconceptions of the French: M. de Mauves is pigeonholed by him as insolent, frivolous, shallow and cynical, whereas the Frenchwomen, in contrast to the pure but righteous and ignorant Euphemia are set down as metallic. Seen through Longmore’s eyes she is the epitome of American moral health whose positive attributes seem even more conspicuous if she is compared to her real antagonist, which is not her husband but the shrewd Parisienne, Madame Clairin. Her portrait is that of a clever schemer, in whose presence Longmore feels extremely uncomfortable and whose moral dryness he experiences for himself in her attempt, to lure him into a marriage that she would financially profit from. His puritanical soul, however, turns out to be proof against her ‘wicked witchcraft’[4], but he is nevertheless shocked by an experience so unprecedented and morally frivolous that he blushes and leaves the room instantly. This event increases his sympathy as well as his admiration for Madame de Mauves as the embodiment of moral sensitivity and also entails his further condemnation of the people she lives with, even if the reflection of his prejudices causes him to occasionally modify his view: “(...) and there were times when Longmore was almost persuaded against his finer judgement that he was really the most considerate of husbands (...).” (253)

In fact, even though he finds fault with the count’s impertinent blindness towards his wife’s feelings, Longmore envies him for his urbane and positive manner which to him seems not to be mere pretense, but an inherent trait of his serene character, based on the same foundation - the historical family tradition that also allows him to seek his amusement outside of his home - that the democratic and individualistic Longmore cannot comprehend. However, the misunderstandings and failure of communication between American and European culture are mutual. The aristocratic ignorance of Euphemia’s qualities is also reflected, on a larger scale, in the count’s blatant disregard for the values of her home-country, which he – a historic type, a grand seigneur – comments on patronizingly, seemingly regarding the standards of the New World “as a colossal plaisanterie” (243) and a “gigantic joke” (263). Having spent only a considerably short time in New York his observations cannot be anything but superficial; thus he is as little entitled as Mrs. Cleve in her presumptuous judgement of the French to set himself up as an expert on topics such as the American custom of flirtation. Therefore, it is not much of a surprise that Longmore takes his arrogant interpretations as an insult and thinks accordingly of M. de Mauves:

“He had understood nothing, felt nothing, learned nothing, and his critic, glancing askance at his aristocratic profile, declared that if the chief merit of a long pedigree was to leave one so fatuously stupid he thanked goodness the Longmores had emerged from obscurity in the present century and in the person of an enterprising timber-merchant.” (263)

This is the antipathy of an American deeply rooted in democracy, who prides himself on being a modern bourgeois and detests the French code of morals, primarily, because it is responsible for the count’s not being able to fully appreciate his wife’s character that, Longmore surmises, he finds rather dull. Richard de Mauves complains about Euphemia’s propensity to solitude, that she always keeps herself to herself, the only company being those English books that with their “terrible brown fog” (265) they cast over life seem to substantiate her melancholy mood and prevent her from socializing. He says that one day, as she read a few lines by Wordsworth to him, he got the impression of his head being held over a bowl of soupe aux choux, which beyond being an indication for his taste in literature appears to be a criticism of the rigidity with which she pursues her Puritan ideals (Wordsworth standing for the value of morality). He asks Longmore to help her forget herself and hints that Euphemia’s travelling with him to Belgium would be a good distraction for her and expand her horizon, or as he puts it, “show her how much one may bend without breaking.”(266)

Whether this is a subtle suggestion that he have an affair with Madame de Mauves remains unclear. Certainly Longmore believes so, when he writes in his letter to Mrs. Draper that “the Count at any rate would have enjoyed the comfort of believing his wife as bad a case as himself (...) he goes about intimating to gentlemen whom he thinks it may concern that it would be a convenience to him they should make love to Madame de Mauves.” (269) One can very well imagine that this would be very convenient to the count, since by taking a lover she would lose her purity and relieve him from his bad conscience. The supposition that he keeps a mistress becomes a certainty when Longmore observes him kissing the neck of a belle brune in a Paris cafe and M. de Mauves strains not to lose his composure as he realizes that Longmore had been watching him. That he feels guilty and humble in the face of his wife’s virtues one may infer by his emotional outbreak that is witnessed by his sister : “I’m faithless, I’m heartless, I’m brutal, I’m everything horrible – it’s understood. Take your revenge, console yourself.” (293). This gives us good reason to believe that in taking Longmore as her lover the weight of not living up to Euphemia’s romantic misconception would be lifted off his back, as would be the feeling of always having to justify his infidelity which, judged by French standards, is perfecly acceptable in a man of his social rank. On the other hand does the thesis that he “would be glad to see his wife take a lover, since this would signalize her acceptance of the code under which his society operates and leave him that much freer to pursue his own infidelities”[5] seem somewhat inconclusive with respect to his later conversion, which, considering the way he has been brought up and the life he has led, is more than unlikely.

In fact, the text provides ample evidence that the count does not want his wife to take Longmore as her lover. His thanking Longmore for providing a spiritual diversion to his wife, saying that he puts his trust in him, can also be read as a polite warning not to abuse this confidence, i.e. not to fall in love with her. The belief that the morally integer American would not take advantage of the mostly unsupervised contact to Madame de Mauves but confine himself to a platonic friendship, is expressed in his unambiguous remark, “I hope you admire my candor. I beg you to believe I wouldn’t say such things to one of us !”, the emphasis on the last word implying that his fellow-countrymen would certainly act quite differently. It becomes clear that his trust in Longmore’s naivety and his regarding him as no real danger to the faithfulness of his wife is the basis on which he can offer her Longmore’s companionship and yet remain so calm. He conveys the impression that he wants Euphemia to stay virtuous and would not necessarily approve of the suggestion his sister makes, when she tells Longmore that for Richard’s sake she would be delighted if he were in love with Euphemia. The count’s apparently self-contradictory attitude – since her virtues are the very thing that in his eyes render her a bit dull – is not that unexplainable, if taken into account that to French standards “a man can ‘betray’ his wife physically with another woman, while remaining mentally, emotionally, and spiritually faithful to her. On the other hand, either man or wife can be truly ‘unfaithful’ to each other without ever having a physical affair.”[6]

We don’t know anything about the relationship to his mistress and whether or not he has truly broken his marriage vow by spiritually cheating on his wife, but it is evident that Madame de Mauves was not far off in doing so with Longmore. It is the fact of her renunciation that exhibits her emotional love or at least something that transgresses the boundaries of mere flirtation.

[...]


[1] Henry James, Madame de Mauves, The Novels and Tales of Henry James. New York Edition. vol.XIII.

New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1970, xx-xxi. All future references to Madame de Mauves will be made from

this edition.

[2] Jeanne Delbaere-Garant, Henry James. The Vision of France (Paris,1970), p.238

[3] James Kraft, The Early Tales of Henry James (London,1969), p.64

[4] The image of her as a witch, whispering incantations and trying to draw him into the magnetic circle with a

wand, fits very well into the whole picture Longmore has of Marie, to who he silently always refers as „that

dreadful woman“.

[5] Edward Wagenknecht, The Tales of Henry James (New York, 1984), p. 5

[6] H.A. Bouraoui, Henry James and the French Mind: The International Theme in „Madame de Mauves“ in:

Novel – A Forum On Fiction 4 (Fall 1970), p.73

Details

Pages
28
Year
1999
ISBN (eBook)
9783638445870
ISBN (Book)
9783638687546
File size
573 KB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v47702
Institution / College
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine" – Anglistik II (American Studies)
Grade
1,0
Tags
International Theme Conflict National Types Tales Henry James

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Title: The International Theme: The Conflict of National Types in the Tales of Henry James