Challenging the Identity of the Family in What Maisie Knew by Henry James
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Challenging the Identity of the Family in What Maisie Knew
Although Henry James did not confine himself exclusively to the scope of
literary themes facing America, in his novel What Maisie Knew, he did
challenge the changing identity of the modern family. At the turn of the
century, the dynamics of the family institution became an important theme in
American literature due to such issues as the increased social mobility of
the industrial age, the new emerging independence of women, and a modern view
that lent itself to challenging tradition. For many of James'
contemporaries, Edith Wharton, for example, a colleague and friend of James,
this theme became the focus of works like "The Other Two." In this work, the
new situations facing the family illustrate themselves through the central
agent of the child, who remains the focus for bringing these circumstances to
light. While the child never enters the action of the story, she becomes the
catalyst that brings about the adult confrontations that shape, not
necessarily for the better, the identity of the family. In James' novel,
though set in Europe and intended to present an extreme case, the same type
of situation remains. The focus for this work, however, targets the
psychology of the child. James proves more interested in the effect that the
dynamics of the modern family have on the children than on the issues
themselves. The situations that the members of Maisie's "family" create
force her into a number of roles that strip the innocence of her youth and
quickly introduce her to the corrupt reality of adulthood.
Although Maisie must encounter situations that, at first, are apparently
beyond her control, she quickl...
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...lues given by the narrator and the other
characters in the novel, as well as Maisie's own actions, we can trace her
understanding and her ability to affect her situation throughout the novel.
Her own understanding Maisie never entirely reveals until the end of the
novel, but we can see that she deserves more credit than she receives. What Maisie Knew. Ricks, Christopher (ed. and introd.). New York, NY: Penguin; 2010.