The Puzzling Message of Figure in the Carpet

The Puzzling Message of Figure in the Carpet

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The Puzzling Message of Figure in the Carpet  

At the beginning of "The Figure in the Carpet", the main character considers the criticism of literature to be a career, something he does for money. "I had done a few things and earned a few pence" (p. 357), declares the narrator in the opening line. He says later in the paragraph that having an advanced copy of a prominent novel to review was desirable because it would advance his career: "Öand whatever much or little it should do for his reputation I was clear on the spot as to what it should do for mine." (p. 357) The character sees Vereker's work as a vehicle to advance his career. There seems to be little excitement as to the content of Vereker's work, the reader is never given even so much as the subject matter of a Vereker novel. Instead, all of the focus of the opening scenes is directed towards the narrator's struggle to become a renowned critic.

Henry James is contrasting the practice of literary criticism with the ideal of what literary criticism should be. Even the characters that seem to be in the purest pursuit of Vereker's great secret, Corvick and Gwendolen, will not share it with their friends. When they discover it, they all want to publish it for themselves. Vereker himself seems to hold the literary critics in the book in contempt, citing their lack of vision. Vereker speaks to the narrator at several points in the novel, "You miss it, my dear fellow, with inimitable assurance; the fact that your being awfully clever and your article's being very awfully nice doesn't make a hairs breadth of difference." (p.365)

The work of a literary critic in Vereker's eyes is to find the figure in the carpet. Which is to say that what a literary critic and readers of literature should do is to look for a deeper meaning or context in works of literature. Vereker is upset because the critics fail to grasp the deeper meaning in his works. James himself must have been quite upset at the critics of his day. Influential critics can make or break a writer. More than anyone else, critics can sway how people perceive the work of an author. As James illustrates in the story, critics are not to be trusted as authority.

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The most puzzling fact is that Vereker would not want people to know what the great purpose of his work was. Perhaps James is using Vereker's refusal to divulge his secret as a metaphor for authors who were dead, or who could not make their intentions overt for one reason or another. If this is the case, then James' is making a plea to critics to not publish criticism without substance. Instead, he seems to want to guide the reader and critic into a careful investigation into the work for reasons other than personal gain.
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