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(-: The Henry James E-Journal :-)Number 14
October 15, 2010
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A Journey to Realism: From Balzac to James through Melodrama
by CHRISTINA WHITNEY
Candidate for the Ph.D. in English, University of Denver
In his book, Versions of Melodrama, Leo B. Levy states, "Henry James was that paradoxical creator, a civilized melodramatist" (1). Such a description may seem oxymoronic; after all, one does not equate the brute sensations which melodrama provides with cultivation, much less the sophistication often associated with an author like Henry James. Yet Levy is hardly the only critic to associate James with the genre. In The Melodramatic Imagination, Peter Brooks devotes a book-length study to what he terms James's "melodrama of manners" (22), a more realistic version of classic melodrama. Yet the subtlety and refinement of James's late works such as The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl represent only the final productions of James as an author firmly rooted in a tradition that valued realistic representation. His journey to that state of realism involved his continuous experimentation in the forms practiced by the masters who preceded him, especially melodrama. For melodramatic inspiration, James found a muse in Honoré de Balzac. Although critics such as Brooks and Levy study Balzac's influence on James, few studies and none in depth address the authors' most similar novels, Balzac's Eugénie Grandet and James's Washington Square. James's overtly melodramatic novel takes for its plot the same subject matter as Balzac's Eugénie Grandet. The similarities of the two novels' plots and themes allow for a unique opportunity to study the exact nature of the influence Balzac's writing exerted upon James in regard to his melodramatic tendencies. Examination of the two novels demonstrates that James incorporated Balzac's melodramatic style not as an end unto itself but as a system through which he could develop his own realistic technique.
A discussion of James, Balzac and melodrama would not be possible without a clear definition of melodrama and its influence on fiction. Literally, a melodrama is a play, and a bad one at that. One imagines a production in which the villain wears a moustache (preferably one that twirls), the heroine wears white (preferably while fainting), and the hero gets both the girl and the cash. Such plays usually emphasize staging and action over character development, creating what common theatre goers want most: emotional satisfaction (Encyclopedia of Literature). In short, melodramas are the antithesis of sophistication. If a stage melodrama were a book, it would be called a pot-boiler. Yet neither Eugénie Grandet nor Washington Square entirely fits the definition of a pot-boiler. While both were written quickly to generate income, neither has met with the critical ignominy and historical obscurity that greets most mere pot-boilers. Something about the way melodrama functions in novels--or more intriguing, about the way these authors exercise their melodramatic technique--marks these stories as important in the developing tradition of the realistic novel.
As previously stated, melodrama--in fiction or drama--provides something emotionally satisfying to its audiences. Speaking specifically of melodramatic novels, Levy writes that such books "are committed to the display of a simplified morality and depend upon appeals to the thrilling and the overwrought" (2). Moral affirmation and emotional stimulation serve to re-affirm the social order for readers. Christopher Prendergast explains the appeal in his book Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama:
In melodrama we simultaneously pay homage to the idea of moral order and yet secretly enjoy the violence which threatens it. . . In respect of its involvement with evil, melodrama is founded upon a dialectic of gratification and repression: it partially gratifies an impulse to destruction, but at the same time, through its insistence on triumphant virtue, represses any acknowledgement of that gratification. (11)Melodrama, with its simplified representations of good and evil, allows the partaker to participate in a world without moral gradations. The audience may enjoy utterly the fall of the villain even as it enjoyed the excitement of the villain's plot--precisely because of it, in fact. The two experiences of excitement and gratification are interdependent because melodrama, other than tragic melodrama, guarantees a happy ending. After all, sympathy for the devil is safe only when one is assured of his eventual defeat. Such a guarantee of social order restored establishes within melodrama a static moral system which, though threatened, prevails. "The catastrophe of melodrama finds virtue rewarded and wickedness punished, but these alterations merely dramatize virtue and vice and their unvarying relation," writes Levy of the moral conditions within novelized melodrama (3). According to Brooks, melodrama provides structure in a "post-sacred," post-Enlightenment world where King and God no longer rule (14). Therefore, the stability provided by book-length melodrama has broad appeal. Melodrama becomes in large part the genre of the masses. Prendergast elaborates on this appeal: "Seen in this light, 'melodrama' is clearly something of a liability . . . [W]hether in terms of naïve psychologism or a highly suspect gesture towards the notion of a vital 'popular' culture, melodrama is the mode which, along with cognate modes such as sentimentality and pornography, accommodates and exploits the demands of the immature and uncritical sensibility" (13). Yet Eugénie Grandet and Washington Square at least partially escape this damning description while still exhibiting the defining characteristics of melodrama. For both Balzac and James, melodrama becomes a means to a higher end.
Melodrama is a primary, if not the primary, style of much of Balzac's writing and in his hands, the style transcends the common conception of the villain with the twirling moustache. As Prendergast writes, "[I]n many of the major texts of the Comedie humaine the 'melodrama' is central and any attempt at an assessment of them must start from the fact of that centrality" (14). For a text such as Eugénie Grandet, study of the melodramatic characteristics provides glimpses into Balzac's developing realistic technique. One example involves the discrepancy between the expected melodramatic plot structure and actual plot of Eugénie Grandet. William Stowe in Balzac, James, and the Realistic Novel has observed, that, like most melodramas, Eugénie Grandet has a classical structure: "Exposition, complication, crisis, denouement: the familiar terms would not be very helpful in dealing with . . . episodic texts, but they can be applied rather neatly to the structure of . . . many of the earlier, 'classical' Balzacian texts such as Eugénie Grandet" (116). From a broad view, Stowe's analysis holds true. Consider the long, descriptive introduction, the complication of Charles' arrival, the crisis of Old Grandet's discovery of Eugénie's betrayal, and the long denouement which ends in multiple weddings. This describes classic melodramatic structure. Yet Balzac practices even with this simple story, (one of his earliest successful novels), what Prendergast cites in James as the process of melodramatic "modulation." In short, Balzac modifies the melodramatic formula to nuance and deepen the narrative. The modulation begins with the book's explication, which involves a shifting series of frames, each focusing more tightly on the street, the houses, the Grandet home, and finally the door frames with their "hieroglyphs." Balzac writes, "The history of France lies written in these houses," thus expanding his explication both chronologically and socially beyond that found in simpler melodrama (34). This exemplifies the double encoding of symbol of which Brooks believes Balzacian melodrama--novelized melodrama--uniquely capable: "The novel is constantly tensed to catch this essential drama, to go beyond the surface of the real to the truer hidden reality to open up the world of spirit" (2). It is in excess--the doubling of symbolic significance, the heightened emotions of characters, the extreme saturation of moral implications--that the melodrama achieves relevance.
Not only does the explication vary from the standard melodramatic plot, but Balzac plays ironically with expectations of melodramatic endings, as well. Whereas the melodrama traditionally ends happily with weddings, Eugénie Grandet ends with weddings but unhappily--for death and barrenness abound. Eugénie's marriage is a sterile one, mercifully ended by the demise of her husband. The device of the wedding only serves to point up the tragedy of Eugénie: "Such is the story of this woman, who is in the world but not of the world, who, made to be a magnificent wife and mother, has no husband, children or family" (248). Balzac's modulation of the traditional melodramatic ending reinforces the theme of the destructive nature of avarice, while his modulation of the explication allows this theme to have national and historical implications, especially germane to post-revolution and post-Enlightenment France where traditional social roles had lost their original function.
Yet Balzac does not modulate every melodramatic device he uses. Other melodramatic elements from which Balzac borrows, sometimes with modulation, sometimes without, include theatrical devices such as the stock character, the melodramatic topos of virtue in extreme peril, and the coup de théâtre. The characters of Eugénie Grandet act, almost without fail, as one would expect their "type" to behave. Such strict adherence to stock characters creates what Stowe calls the "Balzacian type:" "The Balzacian 'type', because it is structured according to a set of assumed psychological and social norms, a set of preconceived schemas and definitions, is the fictional character par excellence that is always known in advance of the realization of its particular destiny, the character who, like Eugénie Grandet, can always be depended upon to do the right thing" (130). One overriding characteristic defines each player in the novel, and this simplification flattens the characters, as they never seem to grow beyond their defining characteristic. For example, Old Grandet, the irascible miser, remains bitterly tight-fisted until the end of his life:
Grandet died as he had lived. Every morning during these last few days he had himself wheeled to a place beside the fire near his strong room door, behind which, no doubt, lay piles of gold. There he would sit, inert and passive, with no movement except of his eyes, which anxiously scanned the faces of the people who came to see him and then looked uneasily at the iron-lined door beside him. (218)Grandet's suspicious guarding of his hoard cannot be interrupted by illness, possibly not even death. One imagines his ghost hovering near the strong-room, keeping tabs on Eugénie's actions.
Then there is, of course, Eugénie herself, who remains unwaveringly good throughout the narrative. Her one instance of rebellion--when she gives Charles her precious coins--functions not as an act of defiance against her father but serves rather as proof of her charity and affection for Charles. Furthering the melodramatic tension, Eugénie's goodness as demonstrated through her generosity provides a foil for both her lover's and her father's avarice. This heightened tension between absolute good and unmitigated evil create the staple melodramatic theme of virtue in extreme peril. Readers recognize Eugénie's uncomprehending purity just as they recognize the voraciousness of those who surround her. Thus, Balzac ensures his audience's engagement in the melodramatic emotions of moral risk and affirmation, for readers understand that Eugénie, no matter how besieged, will not veer from the course of what is right.
Eugénie's act of generosity serves one other purpose, as well. Giving Charles her coins creates what is known in melodrama as the "coup de théâtre" (Stowe 118). A coup de théâtre functions as a symbol but involves actions or words which in their acute appropriateness to both scene and character serve to remind the reader or spectator of the author's theme (Stowe 122). Once again, Brooks's description of melodrama as capable of a double encoding of literary symbol seems apropos (8). The painful, halting scene when Eugénie offers her coins to her cousin thus becomes emblematic of the novel's central ideas:
"Here are my savings," she went on, opening her purse, "the savings of a poor girl who has no need of them. Do take them, Charles. This morning I simply did not know what money was: you have taught me; it is just a means of attaining one's ends, that's all. A cousin is practically the same things as a brother, and surely you can borrow your sister's purse." (161)Through this one action, the reader witnesses simultaneously Eugénie's victimization by avarice and her triumph over it. Here lies virtue in supreme danger, as Charles has "taught" her what money is. But Eugénie's nature, supremely static in the tradition of melodrama, will prevail over the avarice that claims her father and has begun to infect her newly destitute cousin. Her action serves the dual purpose of both challenging and reaffirming her nature--even her attempt at rebellion is selfless. Furthermore, as an act, it proves so powerful as to become symbolic in its aptness--the literal transfer of her love from father to lover. Thus the coup de théâtre is achieved. Only through generosity does she fall prey to her cousin's greed, and only through generosity does she escape the fate of her miserly father. Such a union of emotional theme and action secures the coup de théâtre in the reader's mind.
Balzac's blending of the themes of love and avarice through the coup de théâtre complicates or modulates the typical function of a coup de théâtre. Instead of creating a single layer of symbolism, Balzac has suggested two, both linked with the same action. Such depth of symbolism allows Eugénie Grandet to seem like a step beyond Balzac's other early, melodramatic novels. Tim Farrant notes the difference of technique in his book Balzac's Shorter Fiction: "[I]f Eugénie Grandet succeeds where some of Balzac's other fictions fail, it is by adapting the techniques of his stories . . . In consequence, scenes like Charles's first breakfast, his sale of his trinkets to Grandet, or Eugénie's gift of her nest egg go beyond . . . triangular situations. .. Their import is doubled: both love and money depend upon them" (170-1). Balzac's modulation of a traditional melodramatic technique through the double encoding of the coup de théâtre complicates the melodrama, and serves as a beginning model for his later, more realistic style. William Stowe writes,
In developing this model, Balzac has worked himself free of the problematics of representation and interpretation not by transcending them or ignoring them, but by incorporating his solutions to them, however provisional, into his treatment of Lust and Fidelity, Ambition and Revenge . . . as they can be manipulated and exhibited in the realistic novel as he has developed it throughout his career. (128-9)Balzac's efforts to modify melodramatic structure to fit his shift towards an increasingly realistic style would in part determine the relationship between melodrama and realistic fiction for the next two generations.
William Stowe writes in his introduction to Balzac, James and the Realistic Novel, "If James and Balzac resembled each other in no other way, if there were no historical connection between them, they could still be profitably compared as examples of systematic realism" (xii). What Stowe terms systematic realism, Brooks calls melodrama of manners (16). One of the links between Balzac and James is their reliance on melodrama to provide a structure that, with modification, yields results that are further along the scale of realism than mere melodrama or romance. James's most overt homage to Balzac's melodramatic technique is his novel, Washington Square. Leo Levy writes of James's process, "In . . .Washington Square . . . James relaxes his devotion to realism and establishes a controlled, skillful relationship to melodrama as a resource available to him for dramatic statement" (116). Several aspects of Washington Square, including its startling resemblance to Eugénie Grandet in plot and theme, bespeak of melodramatic roots.
Like Eugénie Grandet, Washington Square has a seemingly straightforward plot structure. Cynthia Ozick writes in her collection of essays The Din in the Head that "The novel itself is melodrama recognizably stereotyped in a venerably fixed pattern; a young woman courted by a blatantly charming fortune hunter, an angry father determined to thwart the match" (74). Yet James, like Balzac, plays with his plot structure. The explication takes time out to comment on the social climbing nature of New Yorkers (James 14-15) much the same as Balzac's introduction to Eugénie Grandet draws attention to the history of France. Furthermore, the climax of Washington Square is so quietly designed that it only peaks slightly above the other delicately drawn scenes in the novel. The only indication of violence or overwhelming emotion in the climactic scene when Catherine's fiancé, Morris Townsend, breaks their engagement is Catherine's tears, the first she publicly sheds in the novel and the last (163). Standard melodramas depend upon a much more clearly cut moment of greatest excitement, an event marked with intense emotional outbursts and dire plot implications. Even Eugénie Grandet delivers a clearer climax in the scene in which Grandet discovers Eugénie has disposed of her coins to Charles. Grandet "rear[s] like a horse when a cannon is fired ten paces off," Madame Grandet faints (taking to her bed from which she will never truly recover) and Eugénie runs from the scene in tears (Balzac 192-194). By comparison, Catherine behaves with typical Jamesian reserve.
Finally, James refashions the melodramatic ending, true to Balzacian form, but takes his retooling a step further. Whereas traditional melodrama features a happy ending with weddings, and Eugénie Grandet features, if not happiness, then at least multiple weddings, Washington Square provides neither the happy ending nor the weddings. Yet the ending of Washington Square does not descend into tragedy. Instead, James weaves an ambiguous tone of peaceful resignation around his description of Catherine's spinsterhood: "Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlour, picking up her morsel of handy work had seated herself with it again--for life as it were" (James 199). James's conclusion contains none of the hagiography of Balzac's, and Catherine, unlike Eugénie, emerges from her ordeal as simply an older woman, not a saint. If, as Brooks states, melodrama is the tragedy of real people (14), Catherine's tragedy has left her a more realistically rendered character, an example of melodramatic technique moving art toward realism.
James uses and modulates other melodramatic devices besides classic plot structure. In many of James's novels, critics have noted the division of characters into clearly defined categories, similar to Balzac. Levy describes the phenomenon, with a nod to the critic H. R. Hays: "The division of James's characters into good and evil types 'is almost allegorical' and results in a schematization of society as mechanical as that of Balzac" (8). When one considers the later works, such categorizations might be difficult to make. Maggie Verver, Prince Amerigo, and Charlotte Stant of The Golden Bowl (1904) slip easily between the roles of victim and villain. However, for the early novels, James penchant for stereotypical characters holds true. For example, in the The American (1877) Christopher Newman plays the dashing hero, Madame de Cintré the hapless heroine, and Madame de Bellegarde the sinister villain. As Catherine's end may demonstrate, Washington Square, published in 1880, may represent James's shift from the use of strictly stock players to the creation of slightly more fully realized, human characters. With Washington Square, James begins to modulate melodramatic character types. At first glance, the characters might seem flat, as Michael Halliwell writes of Washington Square, "In simplified terms, the four principal characters, the wealthy physician Dr. Sloper, his daughter Catherine, her suitor Morris, and her aunt Mrs. Penniman, resemble the stock figures of melodrama: the cruel father, the innocent daughter, the false suitor, and the fairy godmother" (305). Upon examination, though, some of these stereotypical characters begin to break their molds.
For the three major characters, Morris Townsend, Austin Sloper, and of course, Catherine Sloper, James creates room for ambiguity regarding the nature of their characters, something that does not usually occur in melodrama. Morris Townsend, Catherine's suitor and eventual fiancé, enters the novel without a letter of explanation or tragic back story, unlike his counterpart, Charles, in Eugénie Grandet. The lack of character-specific explication allows the reader to hope that Townsend might not be the stereotypical money-grubbing rake that Dr. Sloper suspects him of being. "Avoiding the melodramatic triumph of goodness over evil, James prefers to envision Townsend as something of a moral question mark. The well-heeled Dr. Austin Sloper may be certain of Townsend's avaricious intentions, but the reader, like Catherine, Sloper's socially awkward daughter, may not be as certain," writes James Fisher in his essay "On the Ladder of Social Observation: Images of Decadence and Morality in James' Washington Square and Wilde's An Ideal Husband" (172). The uncertainty regarding Townsend's character creates tension within the plot, and within the reader, as it forces Dr. Sloper to corroborate his suspicions in a dramatic meeting with Mrs. Montgomery, Townsend's beleaguered sister, which in turn reveals much about the character of Dr. Sloper.
Ultimately, though, Townsend's true nature reveals itself in a classically melodramatic way through his uninhibited pursuit of the good life. While Catherine and her father tour Europe, Townsend brazenly haunts Dr. Sloper's office, surveying the goods, so to speak, that he hopes to inherit through his marriage to Catherine. The narrator describes Townsend's flagrant disregard for Dr. Sloper's privacy and property:[Townsend] used to smoke cigars in the doctor's study where he often spent an hour in turning over the curious collections of its absent proprietor. He thought Mrs. Penniman a goose, as we know; but he was no goose himself, and as a young man of luxurious tastes and scanty resources, he found the house a perfect castle of indolence. It became for him a club with a single member. (129)In this way, Townsend fulfills an important requirement for one of James's villains: lack of conscience. Levy writes, "A conscience presupposes that evil knows good--an awareness to which melodrama is blind. The prevailing trait of the Jamesian villain is precisely this blindness, and the coldness that the conscienceless villain is capable of is the source of the most profound Jamesian thrill" (4). Townsend continues to demonstrate complete unawareness of the consequences of his actions until the last pages of the novel when he reappears twenty years later to shamelessly begin courting Catherine again. His frustrated comment to Aunt Penniman after Catherine's dismissal, "That was a precious plan of yours!" (198) illustrates both his inability to accept responsibility for his current actions and to understand the consequences of his past behavior. By suspending the reader's realization of Townsend's true nature, James deepens the horror the reader feels when faced with his betrayal of Catherine and his shameless reappearance. Such tension is uncommon for melodrama, which typically provides release and satiation of emotion through dependable stereotypes and plot conventions. This delayed gratification, as it were, renders Washington Square more realistic in tone than Eugénie Grandet.
The character of Dr. Sloper undergoes both narrowing and dilation through events in the novel. Certain circumstances conspire to cast Dr. Sloper in the role of the overbearing father à la Eugénie Grandet. His behavior during the previously alluded-to interview with Mrs. Montgomery proves that although he does not share Old Grandet's penchant for violence, he still brutalizes those around him with verbal manipulation:The Doctor eyed [Mrs. Montgomery] for a moment. "You women are all the same! But the type to which your brother belongs was made to be the ruin of you, and you were made to be its handmaids and victims. . . .Young men of this class never do anything for themselves that they can get other people to do for them, and it is the infatuation, the superstition of others, that keeps them going. Those others in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred are women. What our young friends chiefly insist upon is that some one else shall suffer for them and women do that sort of thing, as you must know, wonderfully well . . .You have suffered immensely for your brother."The exclamation was abrupt, as I say, but it was also perfectly calculated. (78)The doctor's calculation leaves Mrs. Montgomery in tears of distress, demonstrating to the reader Dr. Sloper's cruelty and suggesting his malicious intentions. After all, as the narrator reports, Dr. Sloper's outburst comes as a response to not finding Mrs. Montgomery sufficiently victimized by her brother. Levy describes James's technique as "melodramatizing" and writes that, "Melodramatizing has the conscious, deliberated intention of simplifying Dr. Sloper's character in the interest of maximizing his tyranny" (38). Dr. Sloper thus emerges as the stereotypical terrorizing father of the classic melodrama.
However, James does shift Dr. Sloper's character away from the Old Grandet stereotype in one aspect, and this affects the tone of the novel overall. Dr. Sloper, though certainly concerned about his wealth, does not exhibit the level of avarice which Old Grandet displays. Whereas gold to Old Grandet was more important than his daughter, money to Dr. Sloper represents a means to control his daughter. Simple avarice cannot describe Dr. Sloper's relationship with his fortune. Behind his natural inclination to guard his wealth lies the understanding of the power such wealth guarantees him over those around him. While Old Grandet uses Eugénie to secure greater wealth through her mother's fortune (Balzac 214-215), Dr. Sloper uses his wealth in an attempt to secure Catherine's obedience. Whether this is for her own protection, or a perverse love of power, Dr. Sloper's manipulation of his fortune only highlights his desire to control Catherine. Years after Townsend jilts Catherine, Dr. Sloper brings up the subject of her failed affair again, this time to try to gain her loyalty even after his death:"Promise me not to marry Morris Townsend after I am gone . . ."Dr. Sloper's implied threat comes to fruition. Because of Catherine's refusal to submit to his will, he leaves the majority of his fortune to charity. By contrast, one cannot imagine Old Grandet leaving any of his gold to charity. The passions of the two men, though ostensibly similar, have different roots. Old Grandet loves gold for gold's sake: for the having, the seeing, and the satisfaction of its possession. Dr. Sloper's avarice, if one might call it that, is not of wealth but of the control that wealth potentially provides him. As a result, the thematic focus of Washington Square shifts from that of Eugénie Grandet. Passion drives melodramas thematically. Stowe writes that, "Eugénie Grandet is a book about avarice as a passion" (129). But the shift in Dr. Sloper's character away from the classic miser creates a subtler passion as the theme for Washington Square. Washington Square, then, becomes a book about desire for control.
Catherine was silent; her father's request deeply amazed her; it opened an old wound and made it ache afresh. "I don't think I can promise that."
The Doctor was silent a minute. "I ask you for a particular reason. I am altering my will." (184-185)
The object of this desire for control for both Morris Townsend and Dr. Sloper is Catherine Sloper. In many ways, Catherine resembles her Balzacian model, Eugénie. Both girls are plain, tall, well-fed, and good-hearted. Yet Eugénie reacts more like the stereotypical melodramatic heroine than Catherine. Eugénie spends sleepless nights, endures forced starvation, and survives violent scenes with her father. Love transforms her, and suffering appears in her manner and face: "From that day Mademoiselle Grandet's beauty took on a new character. The solemn thoughts of love which slowly filled her soul, the dignity of a woman who is loved, gave her face the sort of radiance which painters represent by the aureole" (Balzac 183). Eugénie's experiences sanctify her, bringing her in line with the long-suffering heroine of the melodrama. For Catherine, however, love and tragedy bring few, if any, physical changes. Not that her situation lacks in opportunity for melodramatic transformation. As Fisher describes it, "The theatricalism of Washington Square extends to Catherine's character; she emerges as something like a character from a late nineteenth century drama by Henrik Ibsen or George Bernard Shaw. Her dilemma is an intensely theatrical one . . . for her options are impossible and the constraints of her era dictate much of her tragedy" (174). Yet Catherine, as her father observes, is not "scenic" (James 72). She eats her breakfast and sleeps soundly even in the midst of tragedy, to Aunt Penniman's great distress: "Mrs. Penniman was in despair and she noted with extreme annoyance, that the trace of the night's tears had completely vanished from Catherine's eyes. She had a most impracticable physique" (107). Catherine's trajectory is not the sainthood of Eugénie, but something subtler and rarer. Like the modulation James performed upon the character of her father, Catherine's character has been refined from its stereotypical model. Her moral triumph lies in her quiet, indomitable will. For if Eugénie must battle against the dangers of avarice, then Catherine must battle against those who would wish to control her. She succeeds first through her refusal to bend to her father's will, that she state she would not marry Townsend, and second in her steadfast refusal to entertain Townsend upon his return many years later. Catherine comes to embody what her father once said of her, "She's going to stick, by Jove! She's going to stick" (115).
Although James experiments widely with melodramatic form in both plot and character, he preserves one aspect of the theater in his book. Even if Catherine is not "scenic," James's dialogue and pacing maintain the dramatic experience. As a result, the book has seen multiple translations onto stage and screen. Peter Swabb writes of his encountering the movie rendition of Washington Square, The Heiress: "My own remembered impression of The Heiress as the best and most authentic screen version of James comes partly from this fidelity to the intensely scenic qualities of the dialogue in Washington Square . . ." (Swabb 57). Scenes often occur only between two characters, heightening the dramatic tension. This may be a direct homage to the tightly choreographed melodramatic plays with which James grew up (Levy 6). The many melodramas he witnessed on the New York stages of his youth influenced his interpretation of the Balzacian melodramas he would later read. The blending of melodramas from different cultures within James's experience may account for the widening in scope of his melodramatic texts.
James's developing reinterpretation of melodrama during the period in which he wrote Washington Square may have reflected a deepening national understanding of art. James's American sensibilities were by this time, being refined by his lengthening stay in Europe. William Stowe compares this deepening of melodrama to Christopher Newman's awakening to the complexities and mysteries of European culture in The American. He writes, "What Newman has learned and what James has illustrated is the inadequacy of the American's literal minded brand of melodrama to account for or to deal with events in the world" (53). Whereas characters in The American moved within the well-defined range of melodramatic expectations, by the time he wrote Washington Square James had begun to create more nuanced characters. Although Stowe is referencing Newman's response to French society, his idea also describes James's treatment of Balzac's story. The melodramatic elements--stock characters, richly encoded symbols, and violent scenes--which had served Balzac so well in early 19th century France no longer suited James's growing sophistication. James's Euro-American update necessarily must jettison some of the particular French melodrama with which Balzac had worked. What James had once simplified in his earlier works, he now understood must be complicated. The literal divisions between good and evil, loyalty and betrayal, greed and generosity blurred.
This jettisoning is another example of what Prendergast refers to as modulation: "Most surprisingly perhaps, the exquisitely refined sensibility of Henry James is modulated from a basic structure which has many of its roots in melodramatic representation" (15). This might not seem so surprising when one observes that James's primary influence for melodrama was Balzac, and that Balzac himself had already begun this process. However, it is clear that James takes his adaptation one step further along the road toward realistic fiction. Ozick observes this transformation when she writes, "[Washington Square] is a novel through which James escapes from the melodramatic frame that engaged him--the archetypes of faithless suitor and unforgiving father, and the old lore of innocence wronged. James exploits all of these, and then throws them out" (76). As a result of James's pruning, the melodramatic form of Washington Square plays more quietly. Halliwell describes the effect as "melodrama of consciousness": "One sees moreover, in Washington Square a relatively early stage in the gradual development of James's use of melodrama: its internalization into 'melodrama of consciousness--the melodrama of the psychological state'" (306). Psychological melodrama may not have the emotional punch of classic melodrama, as a central aspect of melodrama relies upon the audience's participation in the retribution of evil. In Eugénie Grandet, the reader thrills to the scene of Charles's discovery that Eugénie is fabulously wealthy while he has locked himself into a loveless and comparatively poverty-ridden marriage. For the reader, satisfaction abounds. Yet in Washington Square, the expected retribution does not come in quite so satisfying a way. The great scene where Catherine jilts Townsend does not play greatly, but rather a bit too realistically. Townsend has gotten thick and bald, and characteristically blames someone else (Mrs. Penniman) for his own rejection. The scene plays subtly, with hushed tones of resignation and tranquility, as opposed to the overt smugness of Eugénie Grandet. As Ozick describes the scene, "Climax is anticlimax. There is not satisfaction in it" (79). This may be one effect of the modulation of melodrama into a more realistic, psychological exploration of character and circumstance.
Certainly much of James's melodramatic innovation toward realism owes its generation to Balzac. For all of its melodramatic qualities, Eugénie Grandet represents a link in the chain from melodrama to realism. Balzac's preamble to the novel attests to as much. Tim Farrant writes of Balzac's introduction to Eugénie Grandet in his book Balzac's Shorter Fictions: "This is a manifesto for literary realism, which links technique directly to subject . . ." (169). Eugénie Grandet represents Balzac's earliest efforts in realistic literary representation. Though the realistic effect is certainly not as advanced as James's fiction of the 1880s, evidence of the effort toward realism remains in Eugénie Grandet. Prendergast, who devotes a book length study to the phenomenon of Balzac's melodramatic experimentation, observes:[R]eading Balzac can be an experience full of very odd and unexpected encounters; and at the very moment Balzac seems to be most hopelessly and predictably the victim of his celebrated 'bad taste', his text yields levels of meaning and effect that the banal melodramatic convention within which he is working could not, on the face of it possibly have accommodated. It is precisely this creative exploitation of what is generally known as a highly limited, impoverished literary mode this remodeling and transformation of the conventions of 'melodrama' in the service of a major artistic purpose, that is the subject of this book. (4)Balzac begins the modulation of melodramatic forms for the purpose of realistic fiction, and James continues his work. Stowe writes, "Balzac stands at the beginning of the nineteenth-century European realistic tradition which reaches one of its culminations in James . . ." (xii). More than realism joins the two authors, though. Modulation of melodramatic forms in the pursuit of realistic technique serves as the link between Balzac and James.
Balzac, Honoré de. Eugénie Grandet. Marion Ayton Crawford, trans. London: Penguin, 2004 (1955 trans.).
Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.
Farrant, Tim. Balzac's Shorter Fictions. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.
Fisher, James. "On the Ladder of Social Observation: Images of Decadence and Morality in James' Washington Square and Wilde's An Ideal Husband." Henry James Against the Aesthetic Movement. David Garett Izzo and Daniel T. O'Hara, ed. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.
James, Henry. Washington Square. London: Penguin Books, 2007 (1880).
Halliwell, Michael. Opera and the Novel: The Case of Henry James. Walter Bernhart, ed. New York: Rodopi, 2005.
Levy, Leo B. Versions of Melodrama: A Study of the Fiction and Drama of Henry James, 1865-1897. Berkeley: U of California P, 1957.
Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (c)1995. Accessed via Literature Resource Center, http://www.galnet.galegroup.com. 04/15/09.
Ozick, Cynthia. The Din in the Head. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.
Prendergast, Christopher. Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1978.
Stowe, William. Balzac, James, and the Realistic Novel. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1983.
Swaab, Peter. "The End of Embroidery: from Washington Square to The Heiress." Henry James on Stage and Screen. John Bradley, ed. New York: Palgrave, 2000.