UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Henry James and the Zeitgeist Onley, Gloria Elizabeth


An analysis of the psychological and philosophical dimensions of two central symbols of Henry James's later work, the Maltese cross of The Spoils of Poynton (1897) and the golden bowl of The Golden Bowl (1904), reveals that by 1903 James had assimilated from the late nineteenth century Zeitgeist the essential features of Darwinism, psychic determinism, fin de siècle romanticism, Bergson's élan vital, Henry Adams' equation of spiritual with physical energy or force, and William James's pragmatism. The complex symbolism of the Maltese cross and the golden bowl mainly expresses the destructive potential of romantic idealism and ethical absolutism; hence I conclude that James unconsciously shared Ibsen's attitude toward ideals and idealism, as interpreted by Shaw in The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891). Two visions of man underlie these novels: (1) the Darwinism-inspired view of man as a being whose animal nature must be sternly repressed by that conscience T. H. Huxley termed "the watchman of society" before either psychic evolution or amelioration of man's general condition could be achieved; (2) the ancient doctrine of man as microcosm and the ethical goal of psychic harmony from which the animal nature is not excluded. The former is ultimately rejected in favor of the latter, as James dramatizes the problem of the ethically sensitive person who is involved in a struggle to fulfil his life-potential. In The Spoils of Poynton, in his presentation of Fleda Vetch, James implicitly rejects renunciation of life for the sake of honor as a valid mode of conduct. In The Golden Bowl, in his presentation of Maggie Verver, he in effect offers a solution to the problem of how the individual should react to evil. James's treatment of the problem of self-fulfilment in these two novels implies his gradual, and to a large extent unconscious, conversion to an ethical pragmatism similar to that advocated by William James. The totally destructive practice of self-sacrifice on the part of the heroine of the first novel gives way in the second novel to a partial self-sacrifice that is not only compatible with self-fulfilment but necessary for psychic development. As static ideals are found to inhibit psychic evolution, the corresponding philosophical change is an implicit reorientation from belief in the validity of immutable ideals to a final intuition that ultimate reality lies in the dynamic archetypes of psychic life.

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