Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Henry James's "The Figure in the Carpet"

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"The Figure in the Carpet" traces a literary critic’s journey to discover the ultimate truth of author Hugh Vereker’s work. The story portrays the author as the ultimate source of authority, without whom all truth is lost. The protagonist is a fan of Vereker and enjoys his work very much. Notably, that enjoyment ends once the author reveals that all of his works have a hidden unifying message. Regarding reading for the purpose of literary criticism, the protagonist says, "My new intelligence and vain preoccupation damaged my liking...I found myself missing the subordinate intentions I had formerly enjoyed...Instead of being a pleasure the more they became a resource the less...I had no knowledge - nobody had any." Sadly, the protagonist’s plight reveals reading for literary criticism can take the fun out of reading.

If this is so, then why do George Corvick and Gwendolen Erme find so much enjoyment in Vereker’s works once they start reading them critically? The key is in the different ways Corvick and the protagonist pursue Vereker’s truth. The protagonist is not willing to work for the truth; instead he leeches off of the ideas of others. Like the student who solely reads Cliffs Notes, he just wants someone to tell him what it all means. Corvick, however, works diligently with Gwendolen to find the truth behind the texts. While his initial pursuit of the truth is communal, it is not until he is alone in India that he undergoes the Wordsworthian enlightenment and sees the truth before him. Much like the author’s inspiration, truth strikes the critic when he least suspects it.

"The Figure in the Carpet" presents an interesting contrast to Barthes’s "Death of the Author." While Vereker is alive, the protagonist has some hope of finding the truth. But with the death of this author and all those who verified their critiques with him, all hope for finding the truth is lost. It appears that Miss Poyle spoke the truest words of all: "Nobody sees anything!" Nobody, that is, except for the author. The now-deceased author "was still there to be honoured by what might be done - he was no longer there to give it his sanction. Who alas but he had the authority?" The story does not allow for the possibility that literary truth can be found without the author’s verification. If this is true, then the practice of modern literary criticism is invalid. The story instead seems to point toward the futility of relying on authorial intent to reveal the truth. The text and its truth will remain long after the author is gone. Why should they die with him?

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