Henry James may be my favourite novelist; he is also the novelist I recognize the least from the criticism of his works. The first mistake critics tend to make is to think that James can be categorized as a realist, social novelist, or novelist of manners, and the second is to think that it's possible or desirable to make complete sense of what's going on in his late novels. If you reduce The Golden Bowl, for instance, to the bare bones of plot floating in the thick soup of the author's consciousness and Baroque style, you have given a very misleading impression of the experience of reading the novel. It would be like trying to give a description of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (or for that matter, any Sternberg-Dietrich Hollywood film) by telling someone the plot.
As Camille Paglia noted in her illuminating bashing of James in Sexual Personae, James is a melodramatist. That, at any rate, is the place to begin with him. To be more precise, the plots, situations, characters types and sensibility of James's novels anticipate the studio-era Hollywood melodrama sub-genre called the woman's picture to a greater degree than any other “classic” novels I've read. (It's possible that 19th century popular trash anticipates it to an even greater degree, but since no one reads it now, one wouldn't know.) At other points, as I may address in later posts of my “James series,” James also anticipates the sensibility of 1940s film noir, the decade when noir and the woman's picture frequently crossed over (examples include Curtis Bernhardt's Possessed, with Joan Crawford, and Gilda, with Rita Hayworth). We might be tempted, therefore, to anachronistically pronounce James a “classic Hollywood” type of melodramatist, except that one can equally say that there is much crossover with European melodramas of the same era of higher critical regard, such as Bresson's Ladies of the Bois de Bologne and Renoir's The Rules of the Game. In the absence of much criticism that reflects my experience of James, I've had to turn to film to get my aesthetic bearings with this author; not just 1930s and 40s Hollywood and European film, but also late Hitchcock and certain works of European Modernism. (Based on the Frygian cross-connections between James, the woman's picture, and noir, I once thought of writing my MA thesis on this topic, but unfortunately it grew into an overarching theory of melodrama, which was far too ambitious for an MA thesis, embracing the novel, theatre, film, television and radio.)
Early James is simply a woman's picture type of novelist, while late James adds many further complications of style while sticking to his preferred sensibility. I'll start with The Portrait of a Lady (spoilers alert!), the first James novel I read (I believe in the original rather than the New York edition, which ices the early works with the late style), when I was around the same age as the heroine, and still my favourite due to my memories of that revelatory experience. Portrait is also the novel with which James criticism has helped me the most, particularly the theories about the two psychologically mysterious decisions that constitute Isabel's tragedy: her marriage to Gilbert Osmond and her decision to return to him. The initial “hook” of the novel, however, for the female reader apt to identify with Isabel or the male reader apt to (as Harold Bloom implies he did) fall in love with her, is the situation of a pretty young woman beset by suitors whom she must choose between. Cinematic parallels include the woman's picture/noir Laura, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Gene Tierney, and the ludicrous and enjoyable 1945 British melodrama The Seventh Veil, starring a sexily repressed and sadistic James Mason as the missing link between Osmond, the creepy aesthete, and the Byronic Gothic hero. (Wilkie Collins's Count Fosco, fat, charismatic, effete, vitalistic, and all-around Napoleanic, is another variant.) As frequently occurs in 40s women's pictures, the heroine of The Seventh Veil just about has a nervous breakdown (actually, in this film she has a literal one) trying to figure out whom she really loves with all of these men bothering her (as Molly Haskell humorously describes in From Reverence to Rape), while Laura combines the benevolent, asexual Ralph Touchett and the sinister, controlling Osmond in a single figure (Clifton Webb's marvellous Waldo Lydecker), pits them against the Caspar Goodwood-like “earthy” police detective, relegates the fortune hunter-with-a-secret mistress to a minor position (even though suitor and mistress are played by the wonderfully sleazy Vincent Price and Judith Anderson, who improbably make each other sexy), and connects the dots between James's “portrait” and the Gothic tradition of the attractions of objet d'art-like dead women, which will become much more literal in James's later oeuvre.
Meanwhile, the “aristocratic plot” of The Rules of the Game reproduces the plot of Portrait almost exactly, although coming in a bit later in the story: a naive wife discovers that her more worldly husband is having an affair with a lover from before their marriage and, in reckless reaction, vacillates between her husband and two men who are in love with her, a rash, dazzling man of action and an old friend. Renoir even casts himself in the role of the asexual friend who knows his love is hopeless, just as critics have suspected that Isabel's cousin, the invalid Ralph, is James's self-representation. Another strain of Portrait, however, is illuminated by Ladies of the Bois de Bologne, whose plot also turns on the sinister arrangement of a marriage by a “dark woman” type of ex-mistress, although in this case the dupe is the husband rather than the wife. If James were concerned in Portrait with social satire or portraiture, as Renoir is in Game, it might be reasonable to call him a novelist of manners, but his concerns are much closer to Bresson's moral/spiritual ones with the ideas of freedom, control and manipulation of a soul's destiny by another human being, betrayal, and the nature of the mysterious union or contract called marriage. Bresson's freedom-obsessed, ethereal gamine heroine, however, is a fallen woman/hooker with a (weak) heart of gold, which could never occur in James, who belongs strictly to the puritan Anglo-American novel tradition. Instead, Isabel Archer is a fierce Artemis whose murky, narcissistic sexuality seems to correspond to what we know of James's own from his life and work.
If James is concerned with bigger, more abstract themes than the classic Hollywood filmmakers, he's more focused on personality than the intellectual European melodramatists. Finally, James doesn't care about anything in Portrait except Isabel herself and boring into her psychology. In the typical woman's picture, the heroine is not of much psychological interest; her romantic options represent the conflicts of archetypal puritan female psychology, as Haskell has argued, which allows the female viewer to identify with her. She may choose between (asexual) security and (sexy but risky) adventure, as Dietrich does in Morocco; or, even more starkly, between the security of asexuality and the danger to the puritan female of sex itself (Ashley Wilkes vs. Rhett Butler). Isabel faces Scarlett O'Hara's options in her choice between Osmond and Goodwood (even as the real “struggle for her soul” takes place between Osmond and Ralph, as Bloom has observed with great intuition for the stakes of the woman's picture), but it is the fact that Isabel's final choice is counter-intuitive that accounts for the novel's classic status: by this means, James shrewdly makes his heroine into a Hamlet-like insoluble enigma.
The woman's picture classically ends in some kind of self-sacrifice, which is another major point of connection between its sensibility and James's. Sometimes this self-sacrifice is equated with death, which is in turn equated with love: at the end of Morocco, for instance, when Dietrich finally surrenders to her heart and follows the man she loves through the desert; or at the end of Jezebel, when Bette Davis finally wins back her man (in a highly-charged exchange of melodramatic “bargaining dialogue” similar to the ending of Wings of the Dove), or at least his limp body, sitting guard over it pieta-style as they journey towards the island of lepers. Other times the sacrifice is of love, as when at the end of Now, Voyager, Davis renounces her affair with a married man so that she can keep the substitute of her relationship with his young daughter. Such moments bring the woman's picture to its pitch of emotion and to the cusp of tragedy (or the female version thereof), in which orgasm, tears and catharsis are one. They also, of course, make involved viewers rail against the unfairness of the heroine's destiny. The ever-practical Davis solved this problem for herself in relation to her role as Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager by saying that as far as she was concerned, Charlotte would marry her obvious soul mate, (Ralph-like) Dr. Jacquith, as soon as she got over the unavailable Jerry. Likewise, for many viewers of Gone With the Wind, it's perfectly obvious that once Scarlett has recovered through contact with the red earth of Tara, she will win Rhett back and they'll live happily ever after. And if Portrait of the Lady were a popular classic with innocent, engaged readers, rather than bored, clueless students and lofty academics, it might be perfectly obvious that Caspar will still persuade Isabel to run away with him and live happily ever after. (Only Richardson is cruel enough to completely deprive fans of the “happily ever after” fantasy that is the flipside of romantic tragedy by killing Clarissa - even Bronte lets the reader keep some hope that Cathy and Heathcliff will be reunited in hell. But then, for Richardson pre-marital rape was more of an intractable philosophical obstacle to marriage than it apparently was for the Clarissa-and-Lovelace shippers.)
Davis's Charlotte Vale, however, has a very good reason for renouncing Jerry, one that, in fact, faintly echoes “The Turn of the Screw”: so that his daughter will never know about their affair, believe that she's being used by Charlotte, or otherwise be “tainted” by their adult indiscretions. We can easily believe that Charlotte is in love with Jerry, or “thinks she is” (in the way we often talk about illicit relationships), and that she could fall in love with Jacquith and have a happy and satisfying marriage of equals with him. Similarly, everyone knows that Scarlett is “really” in love with Rhett and is the only person not to know it, in a sort of kitsch melodrama heightening of Elizabeth Bennet's predicament. Isabel is not in love with anyone, neither Osmond nor Goodwood (although Ralph may be her soul mate), and, caught between the Scylla of the metaphorical death represented by Osmond's life-denying “form” and the Charybdis of the metaphorical death represented by Goodwood's consciousness-drowning sexuality, she rejects sex, which is somehow shocking to the Anglo-American sensibility in representation, since our puritan attitude to sex has magically charged it with being the only feasible solution to all problems (or at least the problem of not having/wanting it). It's Isabel's perverse sex-rejecting death-wish that makes her unique among novel heroines, or at least those in the realist/social/psychological novel tradition that is James's starting point, and it will find its culmination in James's other great heroine, Milly Theale.