Critical Inquiry 16 (2):397-437 (1990)

Daniel Brudney
University of Chicago
When literary texts are included in a course on moral philosophy they tend to be classical tragedies or existentialist novels: texts filled with major moral transgressions and agonized debates over rights, wrongs, and relativism. Recently, however, the focus of much discussion on literature and moral philosophy has been Henry James’s last novel, The Golden Bowl. This ought to seem surprising. For The Golden Bowl is a quintessential Jamesian novel. Almost nothing happens. In the course of more than five hundred pages there are two marriages, one affair, and a single act of violence, the smashing of the golden bowl. The rest is reflection, nuance, detail: the creation and preservation of a “‘brilliant, perfect surface,’” one “scarcely more meant to be breathed upon, it would seem, than the cheek of royalty.”1 There are no extreme actions or high-flown speculations. The moral issues among the four central characters either go unspoken or are raised expressly to be suppressed, banished from articulation. And what counts as the expression of the moral maturity and insight of the heroine, Maggie Verver, is her extraordinary ability to keep the truth silen00to put it precisely, to lie. If even there was a novel in which the protagonists shied away from moral debate, it is The Golden Bowl.The challenge for the philosophical critic, it seems to me, is to argue that it is just this stress on surface and silence that makes this novel of interest to moral philosophers, that makes it exemplary for how literature can do something philosophically important that philosophy cannot. 1. Henry James, The Golden Bowl , pp. 445, 172; hereafter cited by page number. Daniel Brudney is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago
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