Monday, August 08, 2005

Thank You For Tuning In (Henry James's The Europeans)

Attempts to answer my original question ("What is the consequence of being self-contained and unaffectable by outside circumstances?") re: Henry James's The Europeans have proven pretty tricky. I think it can be answered, but I'll need to explore it in more detail than we are accustomed to.

This post will focus exclusively on married couple #1: Felix & Gertrude, and you can decide whether you care this much. A good portion of the novella is spent on this relationship - they are the Mr. Bingley and Jane of the novel, if we are to use the Pride and Prejudice analogy. It is actually a good analogy here because, although they encounter their fair share of obstacles, the love that the sunny Felix and eccentric Gertrude feel for each other never falters and only grows stronger. All obstacles to their love are external; viz., a jealous ex-suitor, a disapproving father.

It may seem counterintuitive, what with the madcap passion that Felix feels for Gertrude and his willingness to stay forever in America for her, but I maintain that Felix has not changed by the end of the book. The key, I think, is this:
[Felix's] sentient nature was intrinsically joyous, and novelty and change were in themselves a delight to him. (53)
See? It's in the nature of Felix to be affectable by outside circumstances - by changing, he's still being true to himself.

With Gertrude: Although she is not as pliant as Felix, she too readily changes in the direction that she wants herself to change in. She has always wanted to be more extroverted, more uninhibited, and Felix helps her to be these things. By the end of the novel, the quiet Gertrude has become wry and opinionated. But you still sense that she is on a certain predetermined path - when Mr. Brand (the aforementioned jealous ex-suitor) tries to tell her that she is cruel, she feels only rage.
She said to herself that it was quite right that she should not allow him to make her believe she was wrong. (102)
She's willing to re-evaluate herself, but only under a certain light.

Mr. Wentworth, Gertrude's father, warns his family from the very beginning to be wary of these newcomers, Felix and Eugenia.
'You must keep watch. Indeed, we must all be careful. This is a great change; we are to be exposed to peculiar influences. I don't say they are bad; I don't judge them in advance. But they may perhaps make it necessary that we should exercise a great deal of wisdom and self-control.' (48)
But even though both Gertrude and Felix have changed, it's only been in the direction that their nature has dictated - they have not been radically altered from what they probably would have become anyway.

My original question has to be answered in light of this - the way that Gertrude and Felix have changed, but not really. Are they any better or worse than the person (i.e., Eugenia) that doesn't change because it's in her nature to stay the same? Or is Eugenia simply being perverse and greedy, since it's in everybody's nature to change? All these exciting questions and more will be answered (to some extent) in a future installment.