The child was provided for, but the new arrangement was inevitably
confounding to a young intelligence intensely aware that something had
happened which must matter a good deal and looking anxiously out for
the effects of so great a cause. It was to be the fate of this patient
little girl to see much more than she at first understood, but also even
at first to understand much more than any little girl, however patient,
had perhaps ever understood before. Only a drummer-boy in a ballad or
a story could have been so in the thick of the fight. She was taken
into the confidence of passions on which she fixed just the stare she
might have had for images bounding across the wall in the slide of a
magic-lantern. Her little world was phantasmagoric–strange shadows
dancing on a sheet. It was as if the whole performance had been given
for her–a mite of a half-scared infant in a great dim theatre. She was
in short introduced to life with a liberality in which the selfishness
of others found its account, and there was nothing to avert the
sacrifice but the modesty of her youth.
Her first term was with her father, who spared her only in not letting
her have the wild letters addressed to her by her mother: he confined
himself to holding them up at her and shaking them, while he showed his
teeth, and then amusing her by the way he chucked them, across the room,
bang into the fire. Even at that moment, however, she had a scared
anticipation of fatigue, a guilty sense of not rising to the occasion,
feeling the charm of the violence with which the stiff unopened
envelopes, whose big monograms–Ida bristled with monograms–she would
have liked to see, were made to whizz, like dangerous missiles, through
What Maisie Knew ironically explores what Maisie doesn’t know through the limitations of her childish understanding, when in daily contact with the selfish psychological gaming of an adult world bent on extracting petty revenge.
For Maisie is a sweet child, caught up in the vindictive cross fire of her parents’ acrimonious divorce.
Henry James superbly(though with his ‘late’ and therefore demanding style) captures the thwarted understanding of poor Maisie who bravely attempts to decipher what her innocent youth dictates she cannot and should not be able to understand.
Her little world was phantasmagoric–strange shadows
dancing on a sheet
Henry James reveals the nightmarish and yet distant world of spectral idealized figures and incomprehensible behaviors through this insightful metaphor involving early film. The comparison gives us a hallucinatory sense of the frightening unreality of Maisie’s circumstances where her natural curiosity is compromised through an unequal and unfair confrontation between naivety and sophistication.
Maisie’s childish curiosity is manipulated by her ‘liberal’ parents and step parents in order to inflict retribution on all partners. The novel thus feels intensely claustrophobic emotionally and syntactically takes readers on linguistic detours throughout, making me feel hemmed in by both language and burgeoning ‘sense’.
Sometimes we grow weary with the burden of what Maisie actually ‘knew’!
What Maisie Knew creates and sustains a burdensome play between knowing/not knowing because we follow Maisie’s consciousness through the labyrinthine games carried out between her parents and new partners.
The Theatricality of the adults and specifically her father here, underline the selfish, attention seeking indulgence of Maisie’s elders. Need overrides care and we feel Maisie has stumbled into some psychological reworking of the Roman Ampitheatre, where emotions are exhibited that would have been far better concealed away from the perplexed and sensitive eyes of young Maisie.
Seeing is separated from cognition and we read the novel attempting to read ‘otherwise’, away from the painful earnestness of young Maisie.
James’ novel has been recently made into a film and brought into the contemporary world, still revealing the ways in which warring ex marriage partners use their children in order to extract revenge upon each other.
This is a a great novel that has to be read slowly as the syntax can be convoluted and even elaborate to the point of opacity. But after this novel, in The Ambassadors and finally The Golden Bowl, James’ opacity becomes an Art form where emotions have mutated into sterile preoccupations with Aesthetics. Both late novels seem too self referential to be enjoyed except by those readers considerably more patient than me!
How to analyse a text quickly!
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