University College Dublin
Audio recording of session introduction (mp3 file)
- Henry James, The Ambassadors, (New York: Modern Library, 2011); Chapter 1, Book First, pp. 5-19; Chapter 2, Book Second, pp. 65-83; Chapter 2, Book Fifth, pp. 174-186; Chapter 5, Book Twelfth, pp. 512-518.
- Robert B. Pippin, “The ‘Strange Logic’ of Lambert Strether’s ‘Double Consciousness’,” in Henry James and Modern Moral Life, (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000), pp. 147-170.
- Henry James, The Wings of the Dove, (New York: Modern Library, 2003).
Introduction to readings
‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter
what you do in particular, as long as you have your life.
If you haven’t had that what have you had?’
Lambert Strether, The Ambassadors
The late novels of Henry James, particularly those such as The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors, problematize the notion of integrity, or at least lend it a certain kind of complexity, one immanently connected to social-historical conditions. The later novels deal with questions not only of individual integrity but also of integrity in relation to others, especially the way in which characters either do or do not compromise decent relations with others in achieving their goals, desires or needs (their lying, deceit, disingenuous motives, and so on). The most fundamental experience for James’ characters is one of entanglement with and dependence on others; the dilemma they are continually confronted with is how to live a life of one’s own within these (inter)dependent conditions; how to navigate or negotiate ‘living all you can’, as Lambert Strether puts it in The Ambassadors, in the context of relations with others.
In James’ later novels, ‘integrity’ is often associated with a notion of freedom and reflexivity, as well as a sense of the individual’s life having some sort of meaning. For characters such as Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove or Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, however, meaning and the ‘getting of wisdom’ is often achieved only ‘after the fact’, that is, after the realisation or revelation that each has been deceived by others or has been living a life constructed or shaped by others. However, rather than invoking a kind of ‘puritanism’ or moralism in response, James demonstrates the ways in which these characters incorporate the actions and interpretations of others into new forms of moral understanding. The later novels, then, continually explore the tension between subjectivity and dependency, including understandings and interpretations based on the consciousness of others; a view which suggests that our perspective is only ever partial and particular; that perhaps the ‘whole of anything can never be told’. This, however, does not necessarily represent a form of self-deception but, as James terms it in The Ambassadors, operates as a sort of ‘double-consciousness’.
As Robert Pippin suggests, the later novels are also set against the backdrop of a modernity in which there is a sense of moral uncertainty and contingency, as well as the collapse of any reliable or undifferentiated social and cultural ballast so that individuals are thrown back upon one another in unprecedented ways. James’ novels, then, offer a historicised version of moral categories; he attempts to portray a new constellation of moral dilemmas with the rise of new forms of capitalism and materialism, and this raises questions about new forms of relationality, (self)evaluation and moral concepts.
This session, focusing on The Ambassadors, we explore Pippin’s suggestion that James’ novels evoke the idea that such social dependency and moral uncertainty “make at least any straightforward reliance on a moral virtue like integrity” extremely “difficult and risky.” In this sense, James’ late novels suggest that ‘integrity’ cannot simply be thought of as an individualistic or subjective category but one of moral and intersubjective complexity, one that can only be understood in ways that are socially and historically specific. In this respect, ‘integrity’ might be understood as James suggests, as “what plays you least false” in the context of a life with others.
[More information about the Portraits of Integrity project]