The Golden Bowl – Henry James

The mention of any Henry James novel usually prompts a discussion of the writer’s unusual style, undulating prose and challenging use of punctuation. Perhaps it is not surprising then to learn that upon deciding to read The Golden Bowl, I was a little apprehensive at what I might find contained within its pages…I needn’t have worried.

Yes, James’ style of writing takes a little time to get used to, and yes James’ use of punctuation meant that some passages needed a second glance, but the novel itself was rich with so much detail and nuance that by the end I wondered how James had managed to condense the whole thing to a mere 656 pages. But enough about my own wonderment, and more about the book.

The Golden Bowl is one of James’ better known works, and has been adapted for screen several times. The story follows the lives of Prince Amerigo, Charlotte Stant, Maggie Verver and her father Adam, as old passions are rekindled and the boundaries of relationships blur, leading to infidelity in every possible sense of the word. Throughout the novel the physical object of the “golden bowl”, perfect save for a small crack, becomes a synecdoche for Prince Amerigo and Maggie’s fragile relationship, whilst the ever changing ship imagery draws attention to the instability and unease that exists between each of the characters.

To say that James is a stickler for detail would be an understatement, so be sure to look out for the subtle symbolism that permeates the novel. It’s these complexities that bring James’ narrative to life, and allow him to explore the intricacies of human behaviour when faced with adversity and betrayal.

To those of you still in two minds, do not be put off by the novel’s length. Every word is deliberate, every sentence thought out in minute detail, every page worth reading. At the very least, see what all the fuss is about.


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