Sunday, July 06, 2008

What Maisie Knew by Henry James

It's easy to assume that the current state of things where children of divorce get shuffled between parents is a modern development, but James' novel of 1897 makes clear that while it may be a current issue it's not a new issue. Maisie's parents get divorced and she is to split her time between them, but the novel's comedic commentary and its drama are drawn from the fact that neither of her parents want her much. And with re-marriages, affairs, and the like, Maisie ends up with all kinds of different people parenting her. I once heard the critic James Wood lecture on free, indirect style using this novel as a model, and it is the perfect example. The novel is third person but at times we are very much in the voice of Maisie's head. But what I kept thinking of was how brilliantly it is titled. My theory on titles is they must work first to raise our curiousity before we have read the novel (check: what DID Maisie know, I've been wondering for years--hmm, guess it didn't work that well since it took me years to get around to finding out) and to raise our understanding after we have read the novel. And it is in this second matter that I found the title most effective. It wouldn't have escaped many readers that Maisie, as a child, has limited understanding of the shenanigans (turns out I don't know how to spell that word) going on around her, but by making that thematic element the title, you spend a little more time pondering exactly what she understands, what she learns, and how she changes as a result. It makes the novel thematically focused in a way that is useful since the drama is confined to her perspective (the big scandals involving maids, governesses, counts, etc all happen off stage so there's not a lot of tension in the scenes we do see--unless you consider them from the perspective of what Maisie does and doesn't know).

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