The Golden Bowl

This article is about the Henry James novel. For the film, see The Golden Bowl (film).
The Golden Bowl

First UK edition
Author Henry James
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Scribner (US)
Methuen (UK)
Publication date
November 10, 1904
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages Vol. 1, 412 pp; Vol. 2, 377pp (US)
ISBN 978-1514729427

The Golden Bowl is a 1904 novel by Henry James. Set in England, this complex, intense study of marriage and adultery completes what some critics have called the "major phase" of James' career. The Golden Bowl explores the tangle of interrelationships between a father and daughter and their respective spouses.

The novel focuses deeply and almost exclusively on the consciousness of the central characters, with sometimes obsessive detail but also with powerful insight. The title is a quotation from Ecclesiastes 12:6, "…or the golden bowl be broken, …then shall the dust return to the earth as it was".

Plot summary

Prince Amerigo, an impoverished but charismatic Italian nobleman, is in London for his marriage to Maggie Verver, only child of the widower Adam Verver, the fabulously wealthy American financier and art collector. While there, he re-encounters Charlotte Stant, another young American and a former mistress from his days in Rome; they met in Mrs. Assingham's drawing room. Charlotte is not wealthy, which is one reason they did not marry. Maggie and Charlotte have been dear friends since childhood, although Maggie doesn't know of Charlotte and Amerigo's past relationship. Charlotte and Amerigo go shopping together for a wedding present for Maggie. They find a curiosity shop where the shopkeeper offers them an antique gilded crystal bowl. The Prince declines to purchase it, as he suspects it contains a hidden flaw.

After Maggie's marriage, she is afraid that her father has become lonely, as they had been close for years. She persuades him to propose to Charlotte, who accepts Adam's proposal. Soon after their wedding, Charlotte and Amerigo are thrown together because their respective spouses seem more interested in their father-daughter relationship than in their marriages. Amerigo and Charlotte finally consummate an adulterous affair.

Maggie begins to suspect the pair. She happens to go to the same shop and buys the golden bowl they had rejected. Regretting the high price he charged her, the shopkeeper visits Maggie and confesses to overcharging. At her home, he sees photographs of Amerigo and Charlotte. He tells Maggie of the pair's shopping trip on the eve of her marriage and their intimate conversation in his shop. (They had spoken Italian, but he understands the language.)

Maggie confronts Amerigo. She begins a secret campaign to separate him and Charlotte while never revealing their affair to her father. Also concealing her knowledge from Charlotte and denying any change to their friendship, she gradually persuades her father to return to America with his wife. After previously regarding Maggie as a naïve, immature American, the Prince seems impressed by his wife's delicate diplomacy. The novel ends with Adam and Charlotte Verver about to depart for the United States. Amerigo says he can "see nothing but" Maggie and embraces her.

Major themes

In the broadest sense of the term, The Golden Bowl is a novel of education. Maggie gradually sheds her childish naivete and grows into a capable woman who saves her marriage by dexterous handling of a potentially explosive situation. She realizes that she can't remain dependent on her father but must accept adult responsibilities in her marriage.

Amerigo is portrayed as a European snob and far from scrupulous. But he comes to respect Maggie as she works to save their marriage. He had previously regarded Maggie and Adam as little more than "good children, bless their hearts, and the children of good children."

It is unclear how much Adam knows of the situation, but he appears wise and understanding of his daughter's plan for the two couples to separate. Charlotte is a dazzlingly beautiful woman, but she may be a little "stupid," as the Prince pronounces in a harsh final judgment. She ultimately appears more bewildered than self-possessed.

Literary significance and criticism

The Golden Bowl's intense focus on these four characters gives the novel both its tremendous power and its peculiar feeling of claustrophobia. While the book delves deeply and often brilliantly into the consciousness of Amerigo and Maggie, some critics think it loses momentum in a maze of over-analysis.

The author Rebecca West said of it: "winter had fallen on [James'] genius in The Golden Bowl." Critics have noted the overbearing symbolism of the golden bowl, which is eventually broken in a scene that may not be fully effective. They've also disliked the roles given to the characters of Fanny and Bob Assingham, a couple acquainted with the four central characters and who frequently discuss the quartet. (The pun of their names is probably intended, though nobody can be sure.) Finally, critics have described the book as suffocating and unrealistic in its portrayal of the closed-in nature of the relationships, as well as saying its style was too ornate and figurative.

The book had its supporters, who said that the novel is a superb dramatization of the stresses inherent in any marriage and the sometimes circuitous methods required to overcome them. James' presentation of Maggie's subdued but desperate struggle is much admired for its insight and precision. These fans believe the dialogue is often brilliant in its delicate indirection, and that many scenes are realized with the full impact of James' most mature technique.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Golden Bowl 32nd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

In 1972, the BBC produced a six-hour televised version that was highly praised,[1] with a screenplay by Jack Pulman, Gayle Hunnicutt as Charlotte, Barry Morse as Adam Verver, Jill Townsend as Maggie, Daniel Massey as the Prince, and Cyril Cusack as Bob Assingham, ingeniously presented as the narrator, commenting on the development of the story very much in the style of Henry James himself. More faithful to the book than the later Merchant-Ivory film, in the U.S., this version was presented on Masterpiece Theatre.

In 2000, The Golden Bowl was filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions, directed by James Ivory, and starred Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Northam. In some ways Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's adaptation differs from James's novel. In the book, Charlotte is a calculatingly amoral character who terrifies her potential enemies with a glance and a smile; however, in the movie, Charlotte is shown as more shallow and frivolous.

In Chapter 21 of Donna Leon's third Guido Brunetti detective novel, Dressed for Death (1994; aka The Anonymous Venetian), Paola tells Guido, "I'm reading the master. The Sacred Fount is wonderful. Nothing happens, absolutely nothing."

A central point of the novel is James's comparison of the adultery of Amerigo and Charlotte vs. the self-absorption of Maggie and Adam. Marrying Charlotte to Adam is at first Maggie's response to her leaving her widowed father alone, and then Charlotte and Amerigo's adultery is enabled by Maggie and Adam's relationship. The film treats this aspect of the novel rather superficially.




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