"The sweetness of not dying": Henry James and the immortal consciousness

Date of Completion

January 1999


Literature, American|Literature, English




Scholars such as Otto Rank, Erich Fromm, Ernest Becker, Robert Jay Lifton, and Zygmunt Bauman have concluded that human beings have an instinctual and consuming desire to avoid death. In this, Henry James was no exception. James's early death anxieties are apparent in the development of his concept of the immortality of “civilization” found in his letters, in his autobiographies, and in early masterpieces like Daisy Miller (1877), The American (1875), and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). James's theme of the transcendental power of civilization is clearest in The Princess Cassamassima (1886), which tells the story of Hyacinth Robinson, a lowly bookbinder and would-be revolutionary who vows to take part in an assassination attempt. In the end, however, Hyacinth decides against revolutionary action. Killing himself, he sacrifices his own future to maintain the larger, more enduring edifices of the civilized. ^ In 1890 James turned to the theater, but his career as a dramatist ended in 1895 with the failure of his first play. James then suffered a deep depression and returned to writing novels. In The Spoils of Poynton (1897), James registered the depth of his depression and his growing doubts about civilization as an immortalizing force. The Spoils tells the story of Fleda Vetch who at first appears to heroically sacrifice herself to her ideals of civilization. In the end, however, Fleda's idealism leads to the sacrifice of her own happiness and to that of others. ^ With The Spoils James for the first time pointed towards the paradox that would become the central focus of later novels such as The Ambassadors (1903): that often our attempts to escape death result only in our living less, not more. The Ambassadors concerns the disillusionment of Lambert Strether, a middle-aged man who travels to Paris, which he takes for the apotheosis of an immortalizing civilization. By the end of the novel, however, Strether finds that the solution to human mortality lies not in the art and artifacts of Paris, as James had once believed, but in the human consciousness, which he takes to have nearly spiritual proportions. ^