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... ... middle of paper ... ...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.

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