Double Consciousness in The Ambassadors - Sample Essay
In her article entitled “James’ Spectacles: Distorted Vision in The Ambassadors”, Hazel Hutchinson suggested that: Strether’s glimpse through the lens of the aesthetic can be read as a demonstration that there is more than one way of seeing, thereby opening up a bewildering range of possible perspectives, undercutting Victorian objectivity. The fact that James himself was experiencing changes in his own eyesight at this time suggests that his fascination with vision and perspective in his mature fiction was grounded in personal experience and that it also fueled the relative view of reality that emerges in his late writing.
The hologram effect that William describes in this passage suggests an outlook in which objective presence has disappeared or is displaced and is represented only by an illusion of lights, mirrors, and lenses. In this article, Hutchinson makes an explicit reference to the device of anamorphosis in order to discuss the play on perspective and vision in Henry James’ novel. Before proceeding to the analysis of the function of double consciousness in the novel it is therefore useful to understand the connections that Henry James is implicitly making between appearance and reality, perception and understanding.
Distorted or blurry vision is certainly a powerful device in the novel and it is associated with the hero’s incapacity to yet grasp the realities of his mind and of the world: “His eyes were so quiet behind his eternal nippers that they might almost have been absent without changing his face without changing his face, which took its expression mainly, and not least its stamp of sensibility, from other sources, surface and grain and form. ” This passage alludes to the identity between eyes and lenses and to the implied distortion of mediated vision.
Moreover, James problematized the differences between appearance and reality from the outset, pointing to Strether’s specific moment of “illumination”: Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which literally was beginning there and then. It had begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharp survey of the elements of Appearance that he had for a long time been moved to make.
This paragraph is highly suggestive because it marks the beginning of Strether’s introspection and places the character on a threshold – between past and future, appearance and reality. The mirror, like the lenses, functions to prompt the quest of the self and the questioning of the correspondence between exteriority and interiority (as in Holbein’s painting, the representation of the self can achieve varying figurations depending on perspective, angle or optical distortion).
According to William James, the Empirical Self “comprises the Material Self (one’s body and possessions), Social Self (how one is recognized by others), and Spiritual Self (one’s mental dispositions and stream of consciousness)” . At the beginning of the novel, Strether is still lacking a clearly-shaped spiritual self. Henry James gives a detailed description of the material and social selves (this explains the insistence on recognition in the first part of the novel).
The richness of detail of the two selves and the scarcity of references to a possible spiritual dimension hint to the fact that this will be the goal of the journey into self-discovery which Miss Gostrey is prompting after recognition takes place. Moreover, the material self is associated in James’ novel to Woollett and America, whereas Strether’s social self appears almost only in relation to people he encounters in Europe. Therefore, the spiritual self will have to be found somewhere in-between, in a space which reconciles the two.
From the beginning of the novel, Maria identifies herself as a “guide”, who will help Strether find this reconciliatory breach. Strether’s double consciousness can be defined, as Courtney Johnson Jr. suggests, as a series of binaries: “a conflict of impulses and duty or of sensibility and moral doctrine”. However, Strether’s duplicity is even more profound than this, as Maria remarks: “The green cover won’t – nor will any cover avail with me. You’re of a depth of duplicity!
” One of the most telling passages regarding the baffling presence of two opposite states of consciousness occurs in Book 4 when Strether visits Chad the second time: Strether couldn’t imagine; but still –! “Even when the woman’s good? ” Again she laughed out. “Yes, and even when the man is! There’s always a caution in such cases,” she more seriously explained – “for what it may seem to show. There’s nothing that’s taken as showing so much here as sudden unnatural goodness. ” “Ah then you’re speaking now,” Strether said, “of people who are not nice.
” “I delight,” she replied, “in your classifications”. Although he is a bit taken aback by Maria’s unexpected perspectives, Strether begins to fill in the gaps, he starts seeing the possibility of these solutions which are nothing but actualizations of apparently irreconcilable modes of consciousness. These opposites are organized in this passage on a surface/depth axis articulating the division between a shifting and unreliable worldly appearance (the social self) and a more profound and stable force which can be given by self-awareness.
It is at this point in the novel that Strether seems to begin to understand that the solution lies in finding a way to reconcile immutability with transience. As stated earlier, the experience of confronting one’s consciousness and selves is an experience of the threshold, it occurs somewhere in-between past selves and (potential) future selves. In this sense, this act also implies a transgression or transcendence as the etymology of the word “liminality” suggests: The term “liminality” – from the Latin limen, threshold, alludes also to limes, which means limit or border.
Liminality, thus, contains ambiguous, self-contradictory senses. […] Liminal is the ambiguous space both of separation and of a passageway from one area to another. Like a gate, it implies the existence of an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’: it lets you in and out and it locates in between. The rhetorical term that defines it is aporia, from the Greek aporos, which literally means ‘without passage’. It conveys the insight that there is no easy way out of a logical confusion over the truth of a proposition or the bewilderment in the discovery that we stand at the border between two imaginary or real countries.