This essay will be using the liberal humanist approach to literary criticism when considering Paste by Henry James. Thus nothing will be considered other than the text as it appears on the page. F.R Leavis remarks upon the importance of this in The Common Pursuit:
the fashionable admirers of James, who, indeed, assumed them to be the supreme expression of his genius, but seem quite incapable of suggesting either any intelligible grounds for the assumption or any clear idea of the kind of thing we are supposed to be admiring.
(Leavis 1972, 223)
Leavis reminds us that a text only exists within itself and should not be judged in view of anything else, thus we can draw our own conclusions free of the strictures of precedent. It will be judged according to its universal significance being as it is the nature of the human condition transcending time. Thus I feel it relevant to bring up early on the omission or avoidance of relating Paste to other texts or external sources as a good literary text contains its own meaning within itself. Whether or not James undertakes this text with a predetermined agenda will also be scrutinised in regards to the text's sincerity to human nature and experience.
Henry James' paste tells us much about the human condition and the tendencies of man. The first and most overtly depicted tendency of man is the concept of honour. One can perhaps extend that to the more localized theme of sexual honour regarding women:
"Oh some of the nobodies have the biggest. But mamma was n't of that sort."
"A nobody?" Charlotte risked.
"Not a nobody to whom somebody- well not a nobody with diamonds. It is n't all worth, this trash, five pounds."
(James 1909, 2)
James shows us the ferocity at which man (Arthur) defends the sexual honour of those close to him at the mere implication his step-mother gained real pearls by means that were not socially acceptable i.e. the implications being his step-mother whilst she was an actress had been sexually attractive to a person in the position to lavish her with gifts otherwise out of her reach. This trait of man is not only highlighted by James but questioned as to its logical applications. James does this by showing the contrast between the character of Arthur who is quick to anger at something that was barely even implied, it can be argued that there is no challenge to the sexual honour of his step-mother thus Arthur is ferociously defending against an attack upon his step-mother than may never have existed, and the character of Charlotte who in the face of Arthur's anger and border line rudeness stays serene and in control of her emotions. This juxtaposition of anger, one of the least logical emotions, and serenity emphatically brings to the attention of the reader that the sexual honour that man (personified by Arthur) values logically holds little value especially after death. Arnold had this to say regarding philistines:
What was intolerably inconvenient to them they have suppressed,... they have seldom in suppressing it appealed to reason, but always, if possible, to some precedent, or form, or letter, which served as a convenient instrument for their purpose...They have thus become, in a certain sense, of all people the most inaccessible to ideas and the most impatient of them;
(Arnold 1959, 139-140)
James' choice of situation to discuss sexual honour i.e. the character's sexual honour at hand being deceased, one must ponder whether it is indeed the specific term of sexual honour at the forefront of James' thoughts or the broader concept of reputation in the face of social norms. This must be discussed for sexual honour though a stand alone concept in its own right can be construed as a subordinate, a vessel if you will, into which James can relay his own opinions about man's compulsion to adhere to social norms as well as mankind's compulsion to defend their adherence to the norms even in light of circumstances like death that all but...
Bibliography: Jump, J.D. Matthew Arnold. London, Longmans, Green and Co, 1955.
Leavis. F.R. Letters in criticism. London, Chatto and Windus, 1974
Leavis, F.R. The Great Tradition. London, Chatto and Windus, 1948.
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