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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The search for happiness and fulfilment in the fiction of Henry James : women, men and the artist Lukes, Kathryn Margaret


James's profound pessimism about the lives of the vast majority of the characters whom he chooses to portray in his fiction has been somewhat under emphasized by the critics. James considers a life successful only when the individual in question realizes his inner potential and thus achieves a sense of self-fulfilment. Yet the reader's cumulative impression of James's fiction is that his characters almost invariably fail to achieve this desirable state, and that they are doomed to disappointment and heartache. This unhappiness almost invariably arises from the relation between the sexes. James considers several major categories of people, but all but one group, the artists, fall short of the objective. For example, James's young female characters (whether European, English, or American), are under constant pressure to "marry well"—to seize the nearest man and the largest fortune. Yet James portrays marriage as the most inhumane of institutions; as one in which women immure themselves and sacrifice all their individuality. Similarly, James's male characters are never happy or fulfilled either in marriage or in business, for in marriage they tend to be brutal or insensitive, while in business they subjugate their moral and aesthetic senses to acquisitive ones. Such debased values are detrimental to the man himself and to all those with whom he lives. Nor are the rare sensitive men in James's fiction successful in life, for they tend to base their own happiness on the actions of other people—a precarious foundation. James believes only one sort of happiness is worthwhile and lasting, and that possession of it constitutes success in life. Only the artist can achieve this perfect happiness but he can enjoy it only on the most difficult terms: he must commit himself absolutely to his art. The artist must be a man or woman unlike others, sacrificing all earthly vanities to his one ideal vision. He cannot permit himself to be overwhelmed by the ordinary concerns of daily life. He must remove himself as much as possible from the world of getting and spending, loving and marrying. Only by making this absolute commitment can he achieve the happiness which consists of knowing that he has done the best work that is in him. This sense of consummate achievement constitutes happiness for James's artist characters. They consider it worth the price they pay.

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