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The Golden Bowl (1904)

by Henry James

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Classic Literature. Fiction. HTML:

The Golden Bowl is an intense, involved study of marriage, adultery and family ties. The central characters are a man and his daughter and James delves into their consciousness to explore the complexity of their relationship to each other and their respective spouses. The novel is often considered the completion of the "major phase" of James' career.

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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
The Golden Bowl is another fascinating novel by Henry James. It must be said, though, that this novel is very difficult to read. Despite the fact that there are very few characters, basically only five, the long sentences, unusual turns of phrase, natural conversation and the use of pronouns call for very careful reading. The other thing is that there is not much of a plot, and very little action. Most chapters describe endless conversations, observations and contemplations

The symbolism of the golden bowl is difficult to understand. It seems the author has had an ideosyncratic idea of its symbolism, or the author's focus would be more on the binding through gilding while most readers focus on the (supposed) hidden flaw. This is borne out by the end of the story as the pairs choose to stay together, while the doubt remains till the very end.

This ending is also different from other novels by Henry James, where the conclusion is often a miserable state for the women. The Golden Bowl seems to be a novel that tests the expectations of the reader as much as of the characters, and perfection is found when least expected. ( )
1 vote edwinbcn | Jan 6, 2023 |
Here's what I wrote, in 2008, about reading this: "No clear memory of reading. Online reviews credit as somewhat typical James (American and European society relations and interations), although for once and finally, things turn out well for the characters. James could finally "make his peace" with America." (Reading the same month that Katie was born; small wonder that I don't recall reading!). ( )
  MGADMJK | Sep 3, 2022 |
The work of a genius. James suffered from writer's cramp, so we can imaging his dictating this to a dutiful and careful copier. Fantastically subtle language that, one feels, James has worked hard to perfect, produces a psychological awareness that is a new innovation in novel development.
And it is at root an American novel, where monied wealth wins out. Father and daughter win. Power out wits Love.
  ivanfranko | Jul 29, 2022 |
This was a very difficult book to read. Rather good, but very much in a "you must read between the lines" sort of way. The book was full of multipage paragraphs of internal reflection and conversations with shade upon shade of meaning. I think I would have liked it better if I had read more by James. It is, apparently, his last and most difficult novel. I will have to reread it someday.
  eri_kars | Jul 10, 2022 |
I began reading the Modern Library List of the 100 Best Novels shortly after the list was published, and thought I had finished it some time around 2004 or 2005. Recently I discovered that instead of having read Henry James' The Golden Bowl, I read The Turn of the Screw. So I corrected my mistake and have, by reading this novel, truly finished the Modern Library list.*

The Golden Bowl is a love quadrangle, and an unconvincing one at that. Maggie Verver marries Prince Amerigo of Italy. Her father, Adam, marries Charlotte Stant several years later. Unbeknownst to either Maggie or her father, Amerigo and Charlotte knew each other prior to meeting their spouses, were very much in love, but were unfortunately too poor to marry. That fact is believable as far as the Prince's reason for marrying into wealth, as he was first to the trough. It fails to withstand scrutiny when considering Charlotte's subsequent marriage to Adam, particularly when coupled with the fact that Maggie and Charlotte have been friends since childhood. Having Charlotte conceal her former intimacy with the Prince casts her as a conniving gold-digger, far from the light James portrays her in throughout the novel. Further complicating the plot, Maggie and her father have an especially close (odd, unrealistic) bond and spend an inordinate amount of time together after their marriages, leaving Amerigo and Charlotte to entertain each other. And to begin the adulterous affair they were forced into by the neglect of their spouses (as James appears to contend).

My major argument with the novel is the way in which the affair is discovered. The eponymous bowl appears twice in the story. First, Charlotte offers to buy it as a gift for the Prince on the day before his wedding, when they are purportedly shopping for a gift from her to Maggie. The Prince refuses, noting a defective crack in the bowl. Four years later, Maggie purchases the bowl as a birthday gift for her father when she just happens - in all of London - to chance upon the same shop while wandering home from a visit to the museum. Maggie discovers the infidelity when the shopkeeper, out of guilt for having overcharged her, tracks her down to refund a portion of the purchase price. While at her house, he sees pictures of the Prince and Charlotte and magically remembers not only their having looked at the bowl four years earlier but also their conversation about Maggie. Even James realizes the ridiculousness of this plot device and enlists the Prince to tell Maggie that such coincidences only occur in novels and plays. This attempt at irony fails to absolve James for having included it in the novel.

James seems incapable of writing a direct sentence. While his writing is not overly difficult to comprehend, you quickly tire of the multiple diversions seemingly every sentence takes. You also tire of page after page of dense prose containing a minimum of paragraphs. One sentence can last most of a page. One paragraph can go on for three or four pages. Maybe at this point in his career James was considered too "great" for an editor to suggest revisions to his text, but just eliminating all the "for that matter" and "in any case" and similar pointless clauses which litter most of his prose would reduce the novel by dozens of pages without altering the reader's understanding. His characters speak - when they speak, for this novel suffers from a dearth of dialogue and action - in horrific dialogue both stilted and affected. The conversations between Maggie and her father are so lacking in specifics, which James maddeningly refuses to supply in his endless analysis of them, that they often end without any clear indication of what they were discussing.

I could go on for several hundred words criticizing The Golden Bowl for its contrived, pretentious nature. I haven't even mentioned Fanny Assingham, who introduces Maggie to the Prince despite knowing he was in love with Charlotte. The same Fanny who also knows of the affair, does not disclose it to Maggie and yet remains her friend and confidant, even after Maggie learns of Fanny's deception. I have not questioned what is so great about Adam Verver - James (through Maggie) portrays him as such but refuses to provide any details to justify the attribution. I haven't nitpicked how the titular bowl can be, as James describes it, "shattered" into three pieces when it is ultimately broken.

Obviously I found this book unbelievable and unworthy of inclusion on major reading lists (e.g. 1001 Books). My wish is that it was actually as good as the introduction in my copy made it sound. I doubt the majority of non-academic readers would list it among their favorites or recommend it to a friend.

* - with the exception of Finnegans Wake, which I refuse to finish reading on the grounds of good taste and its abject failure to make any sense at all. ( )
  skavlanj | Aug 14, 2021 |
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» Add other authors (55 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
James, Henryprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bannister, PhilipIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cazenove, ChristopherNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Donoghue, DenisIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gandara, AlejandroForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kellgren, KatherineNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prebble, SimonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stevenson, JulietNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tóibín, ColmPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
The St. Charles PlayersNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vidal, GoreIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vidal, GoreForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Yeazell, Ruth BernardEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber.
Mr. Gutermann-Seuss proved, on the second day - our friend had waited till then - a remarkably genial, a positively lustrous young man occupying a small neat house in a quarter of the place remote from the front and living, as immediate and striking signs testified, in the bosom of his family. Our visitors found themselves introduced, by the operation of close contiguity, to a numerous group of ladies and gentlemen older and younger, and of children larger and smaller, who mostly affected them as scarce less anointed for hospitality and who produced at first the impression of a birthday party, or some anniversary gregariously and religiously kept, though they subsequently fell into their places as members of one quiet domestic circle, preponderantly and directly indebted for their being in fact to Mr. Gutermann-Seuss.
“His relation to the things he cares for is absolutely romantic.... it’s the most romantic thing I know.”
“You mean his idea for his native place?”
“Yes – the collection, the Museum with which he wishes to endow it, and of which he thinks more, as you know, than of anything in the world. It’s the work of his life and the motive of everything he does.... You’re a part of his collection ... You’re a rarity, an object of beauty, an object of price.... You’re what they call a morceau de musée.”
Representative precious objects, great ancient pictures and other works of art, fine eminent “pieces” in gold, in silver, in enamel, majolica, ivory, bronze, had for a number of years so multiplied themselves round him and, as a general challenge to acquisition and appreciation, so engaged all the faculties of his mind, that the instinct, the particular sharpened appetite of the collector, had fairly served as a basis for his acceptance of the Prince’s suit.
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Classic Literature. Fiction. HTML:

The Golden Bowl is an intense, involved study of marriage, adultery and family ties. The central characters are a man and his daughter and James delves into their consciousness to explore the complexity of their relationship to each other and their respective spouses. The novel is often considered the completion of the "major phase" of James' career.


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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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