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Convention And Realism In Henry James’ Washington Square

2425 words - 10 pages

Convention and Realism in Henry James’ Washington Square

Realism, as described by William Dean Howells in the late nineteenth century, replaces the high art and style of the literature of the preceding decades by permitting such characters as Howells' Silas Lapham to have a distinct place in the pantheon of American literary characters. Fervently, Howells invoked the "truth" of the realist genre, writing, "ŒLet it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know...let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know - the language of unaffected people everywhere'" (Fictions of the Real, 188). This impassioned phrase, apparently invoking the importance of characters such as Silas Lapham, indicates the emergence of a gritty language, an "unaffected" dialect. Such a marker for realism connotes not the stories of Howell or James, but rather the coarse, common language of the masses as found in the pages of Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Howells' call for realism encompasses such literary giants as Henry James, but does not necessarily describe them. Both Howells and James, though utterly invested in "the motives and passions" of the human race, still rely and stylistic and social conventions in their novels. James, most especially, combines high art and society with a new conception of realism - one that removes the mask from the self-proclaimed moralism of the upper classes and demonstrates their hopes and failures in the very light of truth-telling fiction.

While Howells' realism was "romantic" in that he permitted "respectability to censor his observations and insights" (Trachtenberg, 191) and allowed his characters to fall into the miasma of what he believed to be the true American way - health and happiness (Trachtenberg, 191) - James' conception of realism verged on the cynical. In Washington Square, James relied on societal conventions to tell a "real" story of lost hope and betrayal which followed Howells' definition of realism in that it mirrored the experiences common to mankind, yet hearkened back to earlier novels of manners that relied on the upper classes for inspiration and character. James, though forging a new path for the novel, depends on characters such as Dr. Sloper and Morris Townsend - individuals from the higher echelons of society that had no likely connection to the common language of the people that Howells so glorifies in the character of Silas Lapham, originally a lower-class farmer from Vermont. Herein lies James' paradox in Washington Square. Though his depiction of Catherine Sloper's years of emotional pain indicates a grasp of realist fiction outlined by Melville - "truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges" (Trachtenberg, 201) - James does not stoop to the level of poverty and despair as crafted by Dreiser and Norris in the name of realism in the late nineteenth century. James' realist vision of the Sloper family, the...

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