Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
James evokes the romantically charged air of Rome throughout the novel, with lush language that conveys the intoxicating sense of the city. He also sets scenes at places his American readers may have visited or longed to visit: the Colosseum (“Coliseum” in the novel), St. Peter’s Basilica, the church of St. Cecilia–all famous sites he word-paints with an unerring eye. However, Rome, for all its beauty, is as much a symbol as a realistically drawn city: It comes to stand for corruption. As with a fine wine, the pleasures of Rome can be deep, but drunk without moderation–or taken in great draughts by an innocent such as Roderick, whose “tolerance” has not been gradually built up–excesses are tragically debilitating.
*Northampton. Roderick’s Massachusetts hometown and the home of Rowland’s cousin Cecilia. If Rome is dangerous because of its excesses–of beauty, of history, of social complexity–Northampton is deadly dull. Cecilia, who arranges Rowland and Roderick’s initial meeting, has three misfortunes: She has lost her husband, she has lost her money, and she lives at Northampton. Rowland’s concern that Roderick’s raw artistic abilities, prodigious but underdeveloped, will wither unless he has the opportunity to refine them in Europe, seems correct. Readers should remember that James himself, arguably the most important American novelist of his era, spent nearly all of his creative life abroad, believing that it would be impossible for him to create art in what he regarded as the stultifying cultural climate of the United States. Rome is a great delight to Roderick because it is only there that he finds what he has been looking for: a “complete contradiction of Northampton.”
Northampton, which might easily be any small town in America, is crude and boring, certainly, but it also nourishes Roderick in his early years. If the land and culture is raw, as is Roderick’s talent, there is nevertheless undeniable power there. This power accounts for the strength of Roderick’s imagination and the originality of his vision. The charms of Northampton are real, and even the sophisticated Rowland is not immune to them. He falls in love with Mary Garland, even though she is engaged to his friend Roderick. Mary is a distinct Northampton “type” and finally a much more sympathetic character than the European Christina.
If Rome is the old world, Northampton is the new world. If Rome represents corruption, Northampton represents innocence; if Rome represents excess, Northampton represents deprivation. Roderick’s problem is what James saw as the problem of the American artist: How should he hold on to the innocence, originality, and energy of his native land if he is to avail himself of the depth of experience and refinement that only immersion in the great European tradition can afford?
Englethal. Tiny Swiss village near Lucerne in central Switzerland near which Roderick’s life ends when he jumps or slips from an Alpine cliff. Whether Roderick commits suicide or falls accidentally is not entirely clear, but it does not much matter. Roderick’s cruelties to Mary, just before his death, and his complete absorption in his own deluded passions for Christina, have rendered him morally dead already. The ordinariness of Englethal–a place that appears not actually to exist–mirrors, in a way, the person Roderick, his art by now a glory from his past, has become.