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The Subtext of Violence in Henry James' The Wings of theDove: The Sacrificial Crisis

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The Subtext of Violence in Henry James' The Wings of theDove: The Sacrificial Crisis


A reading of Henry James' 1902 novel The Wings of theDove is particularly fitting for this issue ofSchuylkill for several reasons. This late novel is rife withrepresentations of multiple, often overlapping subject positionsthat the close reader is forced to reckon with. These subjectpositions include, but are not limited to, James as authorand as a self-referring subject of the novel's "Preface,"who perceives and performs outside of the designation of "author."The reader must also consider James' unreliable narrator as asubject who functions as both detached observer and protagonist,and whose equivocal rendering of events includes labyrinthineaccounts of the contents of other character’s consciousness. Andfinally, we the reader, are rendered subject to our own ambivalentinterpretation of events. James complex representation of so manysubject positions has, not surprisingly, earned his late work thereputation of being "difficult." However the student of humansubject formation enjoys a uniquely Jamesian-inspired "jouissance"if he or she is persistent and enjoys a good slow read.

In this paper I hope to show how James offers the reader aparticipatory glimpse into the complex mechanics of human subjectformation. I argue that The Wings of the Dove re-presentswhat anthropological literary critic Rene Girard terms the"sacrificial crisis," an act of violence that is endorsed andenacted by a community--a bloody ritual whose sole purpose is to"restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the socialfabric...and establish order"(8).

According to Rene Girard in Violence and the Sacred,violence proliferates within a community when social distinctionsamong individuals or groups become confused or are contested. Morespecifically, when the established social hierarchy is challengedthrough rivalries, jealousies, quarrels and acts of dissent,community infighting escalates into reciprocal acts of vengeanceand retribution. Community violence is contained, says Girard, bya collectively sanctioned, climactic event--the blood sacrifice.The blood sacrifice is a unanimous yet limited act of violencevented upon that representative of the community who is deemedresponsible for the eruption of internal discord.

In other words, a "scapegoat" is selected by the group. Thissacrificial subst...


... middle of paper ...


...he processof finding a surrogate victim constitutes a major means... by whichmen expel from their consciousness the truth about their violentnature...(82-83).

The "bad" violence inherent in Kate’s enterprise has notactually been eliminated--the potential for someone else to deviseand successfully execute a similarly ambiguous plan still existsafter we close the book (in fact such a plan is executed by MaggieVerver, the heroine of James last novel The Golden Bowl--thenovel which has been called "the novel to end all novels"). But inThe Wings of the Dove James contains and controls theviolence temporarily, thus taking the place of and serving the sameancient function as the primitive blood sacrifice.

Works cited

Allen, Elizabeth. A Woman's Place in the Novels ofHenry James. London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Brooks, Van Wyck. "Two Phases of Henry James." In TheQuestion of Henry James: A Collection of Essays. Ed. F.W.Dupee. New York: Holt, 1945. 120-27.

Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. PatrickGregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1972.

James, Henry. The Wings of the Dove. Ed. J. DonaldCrowley and Richard A. Hocks. New York: W.W. Norton and Company,1978.


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