Sunday, April 2, 2017

He found himself supposing innumerable and wonderful things - Henry Jame's use of the word "wonderful" in The Ambassadors

She was silent a little.  “How wonderfully you take it! But you're always wonderful.”

He had a pause that matched her own; then he had, with an adequate spirit, a complete admission.  “It's quite true.  I'm extremely wonderful just now.  I dare say in fact I'm quite fantastic, and I shouldn't be at all surprised if I were mad.”  (7.3)

When Mary Kyle Michael of Tipp City, Ohio, wrote her useful article “Henry James’s Use of the Word Wonderful in The Ambassadors” (Modern Language Notes, Feb. 1960, pp. 114-17), she was doing her research the hard way, so I forgive her some errors:

This device is his use of the word wonderful more than sixty times in The Ambassadors.  It remains inconspicuous because James often uses it humorously as well as in its straightforward sense.  (114)

With the help of the Gutenberg electronic text, I effortlessly see that, including a few cases of “wonderfully,” the word appears over a hundred times!  That is one error; the other is the idea that the word is inconspicuous.  Oh no.  It became, for me, at first an irritation – “what are these people gibbering about”?  But Michael is right.  She calls it – the word “wonderful” – “the aesthetic device by which [James] ties together resolution and art.”

“Wonderful” begins as an evasion, a word to describe the powerful matriarch of Woollett without really describing her.  A minor character at a party, the “historic” Miss Barrace (10.1, no idea what “historic” means), says “wonderful” to describe everybody and everything:

Her answer was prompt.  “She’s charming.  She’s perfect.”

“Then why did you a minute ago say ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ at her name?”

She easily remembered.  Why just because --!  She’s wonderful.”

“Ah she too?” – Strether had almost a groan.  (5.1)

Hey, that’s just what I almost had!  Or did have.  As a result of this ludicrous conversation, Strether, our hero, becomes infected with the word, and begins to use it constantly, first as a joke, a deliberate parody of the memorable Miss Barrace, but soon begins to explore the word.

In the quotation at the top of the post, I can see Strether shifting from the joke stage – he is bantering a bit with his friend Miss Gostrey – to something more serious.  And now I see that Strether had been using the word himself, mentally, to describe, what else – “wonderful Paris” – back in, where else, the great Chapter 2.2.  I had not noticed that.  Calling Paris “wonderful” is not so unusual.  It is when the word shifts to the people he knows and admires – the stern woman back home he planned to marry, the French countess who in some sense seduces him, or the wayward son who he envies – that the meaning of the inherently ambiguous word becomes

“You’ve been ‘wonderful, wonderful’ as we say – we poor people who watch the play from the pit…”  (11.1)

Strether is talking to that son here, the one he was supposed to press gang back to Massachusetts.  He has begun to use the word ironically even before the crisis of the novel occurs two chapters later, when it becomes almost poisoned.  Strether’s begins with an innocent wonder at the marvels he finds in Europe.  Here is, almost literally, the moment when he loses his innocence:

He recognised at last that he had really been trying all along to suppose nothing.  Verily, verily, his labour had been lost.  He found himself supposing innumerable and wonderful things.  (end of 11.4, which has five “wonderfuls”)

The word now includes deceit, sex, and other similar, new marvels.

Flaubert had taught me to be alert for and to follow themes across a complex work – the horse theme in Madame Bovary, the ribbon theme in Sentimental Education – and to work out the patterns they create.  James is using “wonderful” to do something similar, linking scenes and ideas together from throughout the novel, but with an important difference.  The characters are aware of the motif.  They make their own use of it, change it.  They make their own patterns, their own meanings.

Many thanks to Mary Kyle Michael of Tipp City.


  1. I actually expected you to comment on this when you did "The Awkward Age," which also has the word appear almost sixty times, in a shorter work than The Ambassadors. And if you add "magnificent" and "splendid," equally vacuous and vague adjectives when used solely as a modifier of "you" or another person, you realize that James uses this construction CONSTANTLY, and like no other writer. At first I found it irritating, but now I think of it as one of the defining hallmarks of his style. I shall seek out the article you mention immediately.

  2. I didn't understand it as well in The Awkward Age, although it did drive me crazy.

    He does not do this nearly as much in the "tales" from the period. Not at all, sometimes.

  3. He does have these odd little language quirks. When I wrote about Daisy Miller some while back I noted he used 'pretty' 38 times - in a short story. Thank goodness for searchable e-texts. J does seem to enjoy taking a fairly straightforward, innocuous adjective - 'right' is another - and wringing every last drop of various meaning out of it in different contexts.

  4. A real difference with "Daisy Miller" is that Winterbourne seems to only ever give the word one meaning. It is, and he is, static. Plus, it is constant, more like an incessant hum than a pattern.

    Simon's piece on "Daisy Miller" - no need to be afraid to self-promote!

  5. You've given readers a wonderful spotlight on James; next you can zero in on the author's irritating infatuation with semicolons.

  6. Tim, you'll have to write that one. James's use and number of semicolons do not look unusual to me. Not so different than Melville, Wharton, Trollope or Proust; less distinctive than their use by Flaubert.

    I mean, Moby-Dick; Or the Whale. People used a lot more semicolons in olden times.

  7. Even though, in practice (as you know) I can find James's meticulous attention exhausting, I just love this bit of reciprocal noticing, on your part and his (and the characters'). I'm always telling my students that the first step in good criticism is simple: "don't take the words on the page for granted."