Was Henry James’s great tale one big joke?
‘The Figure in the Carpet’ has become a short-hand or idiom for the ‘key’ to understanding a writer’s work. And yet the story in which the idiom was born, Henry James’s 1896 tale ‘The Figure in the Carpet’, refuses to open itself up to easy interpretations or analysis. Neither we nor Henry James’s narrator learn the secret, the ‘figure in the carpet’. So what is this ambiguous story saying? You can read James’s story here.
First, a brief summary or recap of the plot of James’s story. An unnamed narrator reviews the latest novel by the author Hugh Vereker, and congratulates himself on having divined the true meaning of Vereker’s book. But at a party, he overhears Vereker telling the other guests that the narrator’s review was ‘the usual twaddle’. When Vereker discovers the narrator heard him badmouthing his review, he seeks to mollify him by telling him that nobody has managed to divine the true meaning of his work, but that there is an idea present in all of his novels, which he likens to the complex woven figure in a Persian carpet, which provides the ‘secret’ or ‘key’ to understanding all of his work. Spurred on by this, the narrator sets out to discover what ‘the figure in the carpet’ really is that will unlock the secrets of Vereker’s work.
He confides this news to two people: his best friend and rival, a fellow critic named George Corvick, and Gwendolen, an aspiring novelist. The narrator and Gwendolen spend a year poring over Vereker’s work, trying to discover its secret, but all in vain. Meanwhile, Corvick leaves Britain for India on a special journalistic commission, and writes from there that he has discovered the secret, but refuses to say what it is. On his way home, he stops in Italy where he writes that he has met Vereker and the novelist has confirmed that Corvick has discovered his idea. When Corvick returns to Britain, he and Gwendolen marry (they had had an understanding for a while, but Gwendolen’s mother had objected to the match), and Corvick announces that he will write up his discovery in an article on Vereker’s work.
But while on his honeymoon with Gwendolen, Corvick is killed in an accident, having completed just a few pages (which reveal nothing of ‘the figure in the carpet’) of his great article on Vereker. The narrator becomes convinced that Corvick must have shared his discovery with his bride before his death, and he considers marrying the widowed Gwendolen just to discover the secret! However, she’s having none of it, and instead weds Drayton Deane, another critic and rival of the narrator’s. Meanwhile, Hugh Vereker has died, so the narrator cannot approach him again and beg for some clue concerning the solution. Gwendolen dies in childbirth, and the narrator approaches Drayton Deane, but is surprised to learn that Gwendolen’s widower is clueless about either the nature of the secret, or even that there is a secret at all. The two men are left scratching their heads over the solution to this mystery of ‘the figure in the carpet’.
‘The Figure in the Carpet’ invites numerous interpretations, many of them equally plausible. Is it a satire on the relationship between authors and critics, whereby James is mocking those critics and reviewers who aren’t really interested in understanding an author’s work, but merely want to advance their own careers? Is it a satire on the vogue for popular fiction in the 1890s, such as the hugely successful detective stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and James – in withholding the solution to the riddle, and suggesting that there may not even be a solution – is deliberately playing with readers’ expectations concerning the detective story? We’re used to Sherlock Holmes solving the mystery and illuminating us, and the rest of the story, so all loose ends are tied up. In James’s story, those loose ends remain very loose indeed – not unlike the frayed edges of the carpet which provides the story with its titular metaphor.
We might also draw a link between ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ and a story published seven years before by James’s bête noire, Oscar Wilde, titled ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’ Wilde’s story is about a man’s attempt to find evidence for his own literary interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which views the sonnets addressed to a ‘Fair Youth’ as homoerotic poems about a specific person, a boy-actor named Willie Hughes – the ‘Mr W. H.’ of the Sonnets’ dedication-page, according to Wilde’s protagonist. Both Wilde’s and James’s stories turn on literary interpretation and on finding the ‘key’ to unlocking a writer’s work. But whereas Wilde’s story contains action, drama, and sensation, James’s is typically more nuanced and understated. It’s worth remembering that a year before ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ was published, James had made an unsuccessful (indeed, disastrous) attempt to make his name as a dramatist, but on the night his play Guy Domville premiered, it was greeted with heckles and bad reviews. James, unable to remain while the play was being staged, went across the road and watched Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, which was going down a storm with its packed audience. James thought the crowds who were laughing uproariously at Wilde’s one-liners and farcical plot were vulgar, and he gave up his plans to write for the theatre. (For more on this, we recommend Nicholas Freeman’s excellent 1895: Drama, Disaster and Disgrace in Late Victorian Britain (Edinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Culture).) It may be that ‘The Figure in the Carpet’, then, was partly motivated by James’s desire to offer his altogether more studied and subtle take on a similar theme to the one we encounter in Wilde’s story.
But this remains somewhat speculative. What we can analyse in James’s story is the narration, and this is important for two reasons. First, his choice to tell the story using the first-person narrator of the (unnamed) critic means that we can never learn the secret of the story: the narrator is in the dark, so we are in the dark, since he is our only access to the ‘truth’ of Vereker’s work. This would still be possible with a limited third-person ‘omniscient’ narrator, but there is a second reason why James’s first-person narration is a triumph. Once we realise that James’s narrator is unreliable and not especially perceptive, we begin to doubt other aspects of the story. Is Vereker being truthful when he confides that there is a central ‘idea’ that provides the key to his work? Or is he pulling the narrator’s leg? The narrator becomes quickly convinced that Vereker is in earnest, so he, in turn, convinces us. But it would be gullible for us to accept everything the narrator tells us, simply because he has accepted it. The trick is to analyse and appraise the narrator’s character through his narration, and the character who emerges is self-centred, ambitious, lacking in empathy, and possesses very little understanding of his fellow human beings, as is revealed in his response to Corvick’s sudden death:
I pass rapidly over the question of this unmitigated tragedy, of what the loss of my best friend meant for me, and I complete my little history of my patience and my pain by the frank statement of my having, in a postscript to my very first letter to her after the receipt of the hideous news, asked Mrs. Corvick whether her husband mightn’t at least have finished the great article on Vereker. Her answer was as prompt as my question: the article, which had been barely begun, was a mere heartbreaking scrap. She explained that our friend, abroad, had just settled down to it when interrupted by her mother’s death, and that then, on his return, he had been kept from work by the engrossments into which that calamity was to plunge them.
Although he pronounces the death of his ‘best friend’ to have been an ‘unmitigated tragedy’, he is happy to ‘pass rapidly over’ it and what it ‘meant for me’. Fair enough, we might say: he wishes to remain focused on the story at hand. But in the same sentence he quickly brings the focus back to himself: to ‘my patience and my pain’. He is also quickly badgering the bereaved widow for information about her dead husband’s work: did he finish his article? This is thoughtless, if not heartless. He then continues to show his true colours when he learns, in a ‘prompt’ (most likely curt and abrupt, given the nature of his query) reply from Gwendolen, that all Corvick completed before his death was ‘a mere heartbreaking scrap’. Of all the things that are ‘heartbreaking’ about the death of his ‘best friend’, Corvick’s failure to reveal the secret of Vereker’s work before he popped his clogs is the most painful for him. This tells us a great deal about the narrator, and it isn’t particularly endearing.
‘The Figure in the Carpet’ continues to frustrate readers, but when analysing James’s story we should avoid coming face-to-face with the narrator’s selfish features when seeking to find ‘the’ meaning to the story. Perhaps, as may be the case with Hugh Vereker’s work, there is no one central ‘idea’ or secret after all. And we should remember that we are readers and human beings before we are critics – something that James’s narrator all too quickly forgets, if he knew it in the first place.
The best edition of Henry James’s short fiction is Selected Tales (Penguin Classics). It contains ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ as well as most of James’s other classic tales and has an invaluable introduction and notes.