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Henry James’s ‘The Figure in the Carpet’

Henry James’s ‘The Figure in the Carpet’

One of the finest fictions about the role of the literary reviewer must surely be Henry James’s 1896 story ‘The Figure in the Carpet’. When the narrator of the short fiction is asked to write a review of the latest novel by Hugh Vereker it is, of course, for The Middle, a highbrow literary journal so-named ‘from the position in the week of its day of appearance’. The hint here is surely that not only can the critic expect to trot out some ‘middle’ perceptions but, after all, these will be all that his readership will expect to digest. When Vereker reads the little review his response, given at a social dinner, is in reaction to Miss Poyle’s comment asking for his reaction to the so-termed ‘panegyric’. The novelist’s response is given with great good humour:

‘Oh it’s all right—the usual twaddle!’

When Miss Poyle pursues her prey by asking ‘You mean he [the reviewer] doesn’t do you justice?’ Vereker laughs out loud and tosses out the comment ‘It’s a charming article’. When Miss Poyle accuses the novelist of being ‘deep’ he in turn suggests that the author often does not see what the reader might see:

‘Doesn’t see what?’
‘Doesn’t see anything.’
‘Dear me—how very stupid!’
‘Not a bit,’ Vereker laughed again. ‘Nobody does.’

As the narrator goes to bed that night he encounters the famous novelist who has gone upstairs to change and Vereker wishes to explain a little more about what he meant concerning literary critics. With a charming sense of self-effacement he refers to his own work in terms of the critics missing ‘my little point with a perfection exactly as admirable when they patted me on the back as when they kicked me in the shins.’ When pushed a little further about what exactly this ‘little point’, the central aspect of his work, might be the artist replies:

‘By my little point I mean—what shall I call it?—the particular thing I’ve written my books most for. Isn’t there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to achieve which he wouldn’t write at all, the very passion of his passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the flame of art burns most intensely? Well, it’s that!’

Perhaps to search for a figure in the carpet is to search for a ‘hidden meaning’ in a work of art almost as if reading with intensity was merely a matter of extending the children’s comic game of ‘Where’s Wally’. When reading a serious poem or piece of prose we are treading upon the whole carpet into which there may be a figure woven that merges with the entire pattern and, if so, then ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’.

Ian Brinton March 28th 2015

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