Convention and Realism in Henry James’ Washington Square

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Convention and Realism in Henry James’ Washington Square

Realism, as described by William Dean Howells in the late nineteenth century, replaces the high art and style of the literature of the preceding decades by permitting such characters as Howells' Silas Lapham to have a distinct place in the pantheon of American literary characters. Fervently, Howells invoked the "truth" of the realist genre, writing, "ŒLet it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know...let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know - the language of unaffected people everywhere'" (Fictions of the Real, 188). This impassioned phrase, apparently invoking the importance of characters such as Silas Lapham, indicates the emergence of a gritty language, an "unaffected" dialect. Such a marker for realism connotes not the stories of Howell or James, but rather the coarse, common language of the masses as found in the pages of Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Howells' call for realism encompasses such literary giants as Henry James, but does not necessarily describe them. Both Howells and James, though utterly invested in "the motives and passions" of the human race, still rely and stylistic and social conventions in their novels. James, most especially, combines high art and society with a new conception of realism - one that removes the mask from the self-proclaimed moralism of the upper classes and demonstrates their hopes and failures in the very light of truth-telling fiction.

While Howells' realism was "romantic" in that he permitted "respectability to censor his observations and insights" (Trachtenberg, 191) and allowed his characters to fall into the miasma of what he believed to ...

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...mes, 39). James, rather than resorting to the later bitter, gritty realist tactics of Drieser, stays enmeshed in the conventions of society while experimenting with realist conceptions of character. Though the novel caters to the "good taste of the gentlefolk" (Trachtenberg, 182) through its nod to societal norms and customs, James' characters, most especially Catherine Sloper, indicate the emergence of a new reality of "an authentic and original being" (Bell, 38) - a being of lost hopes with the ragged edges of "truth uncompromisingly told."

Works Cited

Millicent Bell, "Style as Subject Washington Square," in Sewanee Review (vol. 83, 1985).

Henry James, Washington Square (London: Penguin Classics, 1986).

Alan Trachtenberg, "Fictions of the Real," in The Incorporation of America: Culture & Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982).

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