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· Reality and the Tacit Logic of Ideology in Henry James's "The Real Thing" ·

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Trope Topic College
Mount Olympus, Washington

The nameless narrator-artist of Henry James's "The Real Thing," midway in his first encounter with Major and Mrs. Monarch, equivocates strangely on a significant pronoun in judging their appearance. The Monarchs, readers will recall, have come to his studio as prospective models of an aristocratic reality fallen on hard times, and after having marked their "advantages" ("such as would make a drawing room look well") the narrator remarks: "I was so amused by them that, to get more of it, I did my best to take their point of view."[1] It is the "it" here that mystifies, and I believe in identifying its reference — either near or remote — we might find some interpretive clues to the story's larger meaning.

The remark, aptly Jamesian both in style and substance, is doubly intriguing for its typical Jamesian insistence on a "point of view" and for the apparent nicety of the forward grammatical referent of the "it" the narrator imagines himself getting by taking their point of view. For presumably the "it" and the "point of view" are (grammatically speaking) equivalents. (Certainly, James cannot be charged with a grammatical error.) But critically and theoretically, one wonders.[2] What is the "it" the narrator gets by taking the Monarchs' point of view, and who is getting and taking what in the bargain? Indeed, may James be ironically representing more than the grammatical "it" — say, "The Real Thing" on his mind — that the word presumably refers to? Even more, what does it mean to take a point of view, particularly one like the Monarchs', and what else does one get from it once taken?

Although these questions admit of no easy answers and although answers are like points of view doubtlessly multiple, a possible clue offers itself in what develops from the context of this remark. Initially the clue appears in another possible referent of the pronoun "it" — one pointing backwards rather than forwards — and we see it in what follows the narrator's judging the two Monarchs' "advantages" as "preponderantly social" (102). At this point, Major Monarch begins insisting directly and significantly on the suitability of their "figure" (though not of their person) for purposes of book illustration. "We thought that if you ever have to do people like us," he says, "we might be something like it. She particularly — for a lady in a book" (102). Assuming the "it" in the phrase "something like it" has, from its backward reference to "figure," a projected referential use in our later "I-was-so-amused" remark, we can perhaps begin to see a doubly significant index of meaning in the story. For in context, "figure" and "point of view" both qualify as the pronoun's equivocal referents. They are, so to speak, exchangeable. But it is what develops in context that matters, so here again, for reference, is the narrator's remark together with what follows:

I was so amused by them that, to get more of it, I did my best to take their point of view; and though it was an embarrassment to find myself appraising physically, as if they were animals on hire or useful blacks, a pair whom I should have expected to meet only in one of the relations in which criticism is tacit, I looked at Mrs. Monarch judiciously enough to be able to exclaim after a moment with conviction: 'Oh yes, a lady in a book!' She was singularly like a bad illustration. (102)

Although we might smile at his final judgment — since our narrator has so quickly abandoned the Monarchs' point of view for the "tacit" criticism of their aesthetic aim — it is for the moment his wayward route to that judgment that counts. For the interpretive claim the whole passage makes on our attention is not, as our narrator first suggests, conclusively amusing. Indeed, what we observe in his taking the Monarchs' point of view in order to get Mrs. Monarch's aesthetic "figure" is a grammatical, rhetorical, and logical complication, one yielding more than a mere exchange of referents. For it begs critical identification not just of her aesthetic figure, but of his rhetorical one as well — and, even more, of the vexed question of the claimed ground of his own concluding judgment. Indeed, critically and theoretically, the "it" (both as taken and got) yields much.

The issues raised by James's narrator raise obviously large questions. They are of the sort suggestive of those interrogative moments in theoretical criticism where, as literary critics like Paul de Man claim, figural meaning and literal reference ironically part company. Word and thing are interpretively disjunct. As de Man might say, we have in James's "it" the "reduction to the rigors of grammar of rhetorical mystifications," with the pronoun mystifying because its "figure" remains, under scrutiny of multiple "points of view," always undecidable.[3] Although we can identify its significance, we cannot determine its meaning. For if in de Man's terms, grammar's rules suggest, they cannot solve rhetorical intent, inasmuch as James's narrator at last waffles, rhetorically, between subjective and objective determinants of what logically remains in his mind, himself and the Monarchs remembered — an old relation of "self" to "other."[4]

But especially since our narrator makes figures and points of view directly if equivocally significant, their meaning cannot, even in de Man's terms, finally escape textual reference. For critically and theoretically, as de Man himself avers, such systematic undoing of understanding — which he rightly calls the trope of "irony" — "enforces the repetition of [understanding's own] aberration" (301). That is, understanding — apprehended by de Man as an allegorical relation of word to thing — even in irony must have some figural say since, as he claims, in ironic events "[there] is disseminated throughout the entire text . . . the permanent parabasis of an allegory (of figure)."[5] In our passage, that allegorical "parabasis" is seen in yet another relation James's narrator takes and gets from the Monarchs, and if, rhetorically and grammatically, it pairs the Monarchs only with another of his "figures," it suggests, too, what is logically an interpretive "parabasis" — or ground, as I would say — of his own concluding judgment.[6]

What grounds our narrator's judgment, quite simply, is an economic rather than aesthetic determinant, and we see it, with other economic relations implied, in the ironic similes marking Mrs. Monarch's so-called "figure." With context providing clues, we should recall that his concluding judgment — her being a "bad illustration" for "a lady in a book!" — develops initially from an as-if possibility. Though claiming "embarrassment" in initially appraising the Monarchs, as he says, "as if they were animals on hire or useful blacks" — "on hire" and "useful" marking his thought — he does so in the guise of figures and points of view grammatically ambiguous, rhetorically ironic, and logically embarrassing. For pronoun referentiality here yields only ambiguous, ironic reversals of point of view all calling into question the claimed ground of his judgment. Simply, our narrator's professed interest in art reveals itself professionally in economics; for although Mrs. Monarch presents herself for aesthetic judgment, by taking her point of view in amusement, he gets from it, in turn, only his own in embarrassment: that is, economic "representation." In fact, as he says elsewhere, "lack of representation" was, for him, always "a profitless question" (emphasis added, 104).[7]

Yet this figural, economic ground of interpretation is not wholly unproblematic in irony. Even if we provisionally grant that the narrator's equivocations admit economic interpretation, their intended logic still seems — at least in de Man's terms — undecidable. For our narrator's own relation to the Monarchs, like Henry James's to his tale, remains (in figure) questionable. In point of fact, James's own role remains at issue. For beyond identifying our narrator's tensions and embarrassments, questioning of Henry James's own intentions should reveal — though in figure — related personal and professional tensions in James as well. Understandably, the text thematizes the very question to ask: What representing and represented relation of the narrator to the two Monarchs is Henry James presenting to us in ironic allegory as the primary origin of "The Real Thing"? For quite literally, he — James — is the Mon-arch, or primary origin, of his own text [8], and all pronominal substitutions observed in it — ironic, metonymical slidings of figures and points of view into one another — only thematize allegorically James's real, if ironically remembered, presence in it. The question, then, is what is Henry James's "intention," and is it conscious or unconscious?

A answer to this question is admittedly difficult. As critics, we stand in relation to "it" as our narrator himself does to the Monarchs, for in trying to find James's own position, we run the added risk of getting only our own in turn — and of finding self-reflexive "figures," too. For in discovering James's intended position, we reason like quantum physicists with "figures" of mere calculated probability. Indeed, by having deconstructed even so small a particle as James's "it," we now encounter even smaller ones still: namely, ourselves in the form of our own eigen values, functions, and states as the physicists say. In fact, by integrating and differentiating our own grammatical functions and rhetorical values to reveal Henry James's ironically allegorical state of consciousness, we — or I, at least — reveal another. It is simply to say that deconstructive and quantum thought are analogous.[9] But if criticism entails our use of such self-reflexive critical operators, we can also suggest, without irony — even while figuring its risk — that "The Real Thing" presents us a self-conscious, self-reflexive act of personal, ironic criticism through the Monarchs, and represents an unconscious but non-self-reflexive act of professional, allegorical criticism through James's narrator. In both cases, Henry James's own point of view and figure operate tacitly, and we observe their residual traces scattered throughout his text.

In fact, we can see his most important in our I-was-so-amused passage. En route to his judgment of Mrs. Monarch's being a "bad illustration" for "a lady in a book!" our narrator, we should recall, anticipates for us the form of his judgment without specifying — for the Monarchs, at least — its content. Though grammatically it is the principal object of his appraisal, rhetorically it is also a subjective aside, suggesting ironic disclosure.[10] Specifically, we should here focus on one brief grammatical clause to reflect rhetorically on its object, namely, this clause, "and though it was an embarrassment to find myself appraising physically," and this object, "a pair whom I should have expected to meet in one of the relations in which criticism is tacit." Logically, what we should now ask is what in reality are those "relations" our narrator "should have expected" to meet the Monarchs in, and why in them is "criticism" just their "tacit" attribute? What, in effect, is Henry James implying through his narrator?

Here our questioning poses critical and theoretical issues now likely in some readers' minds to yield us only trouble. For to posit extra-textual "content" by inference from mere "formal" properties of a text is, so the argument goes, to exceed the "decidable" — maybe "respectable" — reach of current theoretical criticism. I say "respectable" since our own text (given as it is to an ironic "play" of figures) yields us here something more "serious" like a point. But ironically, that is precisely what "The Real Thing" does. We should all recall the story's expressly-stated "moral": "the lesson that in the deceptive atmosphere of art even the highest respectability may fail of being plastic" (116). Although the passage is easily overlooked, it suggests, I think, something still more crucial — since although we expect artistic deception in it, by our seeing in it an object rigid by implication, yet another point emerges. To press it, imagine what the deceptive word "respectability" means in a story and a country where leading figures are, for everyone, in truth called "Monarchs"? Or again, imagine what thoughts reported of our English artist's only represented "critic," Jack Hawley, mean that "They [the Monarchs] were a compendium of everything he most objected to in the social system of his country" (115)? For in the end, James's story yields just such real, ironically-intended, though tacitly-delivered criticism.

But any imagined implications may still be troubling if, with the narrator, we systematically see in them the very error the tale aims to critique; and the error, of course, is that there are "real things" in these Monarchs to criticize — and one can say in their fictive narrator, too. Indeed, "The Real Thing's" point even by conventional analysis is to correct that naiveté, suggesting that representation and reality — art and life, literature and history — are in the text disjunct. Hence the "moral." But hence, too, by de Manian deconstruction, the figurative turning of James's text into its own criticism, calling tacit conditions of its real construction into question. For if "the Monarchs" and "Henry James" stand in some critical relation to one another, then it, too, will get some final reference, and "it" does — encoded as an artist and model's "secret." We need here recall the narrator's "our relations [were] to be kept secret; this was why it was 'for the figure' — the reproduction of the face would betray them" (emphasis added, 104), at last to see Henry James's and the Monarchs' point of view; and we should recall, too, his narrator's questioning whether a Cheapside magazine editor would ever "publish a really royal romance, 'A Tale of Buckingham Palace'" (110). Discerning readers will see, of course, that that tale has been published already.


[1] Henry James, "The Real Thing," in Jerome Beaty, ed., The Norton Introduction to Fiction, 3rd ed. (New York; Norton, 1985) 102.

[2] The grammatical issue of pronoun referentiality in James's style arises in the work of Robert Johnson and Ralf Norrman, in whose view equivocation seems almost the rule rather than the exception. Whether and how critically to interpret the ambiguities remain the issues. See Robert G. Johnson, "A Study of the Style of Henry James's Late Novels," diss., Bowling Green State University, 1971, 38-47, 83-4, and 97, and Ralf Norrman, The Insecure World of Henry James's Fiction (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982), 16-17, 197. Theoretically, Diane Griffin Crowder suggests what may be the best approach: to consider such equivocations "not only linguistically, but semiotically, deviant." See her essay, "The Semiotic Functions of Ideology in Literary Discourse," in Harry R. Garvin, ed. Literature and Ideology (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1982), 168 (n. 9). With Michael Riffaterre she agrees that "the important parts of the text are those points where the reader notes an 'ungrammaticality'" (n. 9). "Ideology," for her, is the tacit semiotic grammar of such points.

[3] Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979), 17. Technically, this is de Man's most succinct statement of deconstructive critical reading. My appropriation of his work critically accords to logic an equality with grammar and rhetoric in all such reading. Though logic seems discounted in his work, it is rather like the bracketed "natural attitude" in phenomenology: momentarily suspended in order to yield better textual description. For de Man, logic shows "possibilities" for grammatical-rhetorical "tensions" (7). Yet once admitted, they also beg logical explanation. Without their admission, however, de Man rightly warns: "Whether a further step, which would leave this hermeneutic model behind, can be taken should not a priori or naively be taken for granted" (ix).

[4] I am here anticipating our story's conclusion, where the narrator is left at last with the Monarchs' "memory" (118). Logically, the story baffles anyone who with the narrator sees only its object without considering the subjective roles producing it. Naturally, James's and the reader's are implied.

[5] This remark (300-01) explains de Man's assertion that irony repeats understanding's "aberration" in allegory. It is abstracted, fairly, I hope, from his last paragraph. My sense of its point bears mention. De Man seems to be dressing up in deconstructive drag what in Northrop Frye's earlier Anatomy of Criticism was once irony's return to myth. De Man's concluding parenthesis "(of figure)" perhaps shows his effort to remain, unlike Frye, a witty, disillusioned ironist to the end.

[6] Though I start with de Man's "parabasis," I end with "ground." Theoretically, I imply figure-ground problems in Gestalt perception, with de Man's "parabasis" (an interrupting trope) recalling that as figure borders ground, so rhetoric borders grammar in alternate turns. De Man's is a "perceptual" theory of reading problems. But critically, marking borders and problems is also a "conceptual" mediation and sometimes defense of spaces set apart without being settled in perception. Logically, theoretical criticism has, beyond identifying the "tensions" between words, an additional task of keeping "peace" among them. Logic sits on border lines of that truth.

[7] My interest is in one economic figure, the so-called "profit" of representation. Implicitly and inclusively, all details from the narrator's securing his Cheapside commission to buying off the Monarchs in the end ground the artistic figure he cuts. It is inconvenient to analyze all details here, however.

[8] Although, literally, James is the Mon-arch of the story, figuratively his doubling of the Monarchs discloses a conscious self-awareness of rhetorical self-division in his ironic mode of address. Although implications are too complex to detail, readers may recall that the Monarchs' marriage was "real" and their address, "humble," according to the narrator: "It was the only thing about them that was really professional," he says (108). His judgment reflects personal detestation of the amateur" (104) and, by implication, ironic oneness with their wedded, humble singularity.

[9] If the analogy is insightful, it may not be, pace de Man, blind. Still wider disciplinary analogues of deconstruction are being acknowledged. Floyd Merrell's Deconstruction Reframed (West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1985) suggests analogues in numerous disciplines, especially mathematics. My interest is in the "particular" and "probable" in quantum thought. For a clear account of eigen variables in it, see Henry Margenau's The Nature of Physical Reality (1950; Woodbridge, Conn.: Ox Bow, 1977), 329-55. My mathematical allusions also mark deconstruction's presence even in old "ghosts of departed magnitudes" once mourned in the infinitesimal calculus. Called "points," they now beg admission to deconstruction's practice by what is called "non-standard analysis." See Philip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh, The Mathematical Experience (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1981), 237-254, and Martin Davis, "Non-Standard Analysis: A Revolution Under Way?" Science and Nature (Nos. 7/8, 1986) 34-42.

[10] De Man specifically associates asides with the figures of parabasis and anacoluthon (300-01). These ironic, intent-suggesting tropes usually extend, he claims, "over all the points of the figural line" of a discourse. Here an artist's aside extends into a critic's discourse, mine, and by implication, James's. De Man's views are explained in "The Rhetoric of Temporality" (Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed. revised [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983] 187-228). I differ from him only in believing that James was not blind to the insights of his own "criticism." Though tacit, it "figures" well with de Man's views on ironic representation and unhappy consciousness (222). Without irony, I should add that my own line is best represented by Bernard J. F. Lonergan's Insight: A Study in Human Understanding. See The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, Vol. 3 (University of Toronto Press, 1992), 585-617, "The Truth of Interpretation."

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