‘See’? I see nothing but YOU.” And the truth of it had with this force after a moment so strangely lighted his eyes that as for pity and dread of them she buried her own in his breast.
—Henry James, from The Golden Bowl
Poets think in lines, prose writers in sentences; the best of both work from sound to sense, with an ear for the music in their compositions. S for Sentence celebrates lyricism in prose, the play and craft at work in the artful sentence. We post a sentence a month along with comments by a guest writer on the craft that shapes it, on what makes it great. In one or two sentences.
—Pearl Abraham, Editor
—Stephanie Grant, Guest Editor
The last words of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl pose all the contradictions of that book and wheel them forward. Words detonate like time bombs: the “truth” that lights up the eyes of the Prince has been very much in question: he has had false eyes, indeed more than eyes, for his wife Maggie’s best friend (and, in the novel’s kinky geometry, her own stepmother) and his own former lover, Charlotte Stant, and Maggie has fought long and hard to bring the Prince to heel. She has done this through lies, trickery, and strategic indirection, posing as mildness itself while indicating to the Prince that she knows of the adultery but not telling him how or how much refusing to confront her friend with the fact of her knowledge, despite Charlotte’s increasingly desperate attempts to learn why her lover has turned from her, and why her husband is transporting her to a fate, for her and Henry James alike, worse than death—America! Maggie has, in her own words, “done it all.” But what has she done? It’s not clear whether she has her husband back, or a hypnotized automaton. And the echo of Aristotlean catharsis ,“pity and dread,”suggests that she is now relegated to observer of the scene she sought to craft. Finally, “buried” is not an auspicious verb; it suggests at the very least that she, too, will have to kill off her old self in order to make this most bizarre of marriages work.
But isn’t that James’s point? The Prince and Maggie both have to become what they have not been in order to transform contingency into permanence, and when they do, the novel must end, and life begin. The new beginning that awaits is, quite literally, unimaginable, as it is in every relation. The point of the last sentence, and indeed of the whole 500-page novel that precedes it, is to point beyond itself to the blank space that follows, where Maggie and the Prince—and more pointedly, the readers who have been following their story—are free to imagine a future for themselves.
—Jonathan Freedman is the author of The Temple of Culture and Klezmer America