Places: Roderick Hudson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1876

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1870’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Rome

*Rome. Roderick HudsonCapital city of Italy after 1871 and one of the world’s art capitals, in which most of the novel takes place. Rowland Mallet, a man of inherited wealth and cultivated tastes, offers to accompany Roderick Hudson, a young and talented American sculptor, to Europe. Mallet sponsors him during their sojourn, undertaken to refine Hudson’s sensibilities through the study of art and general exposure to European culture. They visit Paris, Genoa, Milan, Venice, Florence, and other great cities, but it is Rome that most deeply captures Roderick’s imagination. His first fortnight in Rome is an “aesthetic revel,” and he declares that Rome makes him feel and understand more things than he can, as he is sure that life there must give all one’s senses an “incomparable fineness.” Indeed, Roderick’s art does impress many people in Rome, especially those connected with the local colony of American artists; however, his successes are short-lived. Soon, his passion for Christina Light, a beauty of vague American origins but a distinctly European social and moral sense, consumes him, and he loses his will to create.

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.

BibliographyAnderson, Charles R. Person, Place and Thing in Henry James’s Novels. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1977. A study of the connection of James’s novels to other novels of the nineteenth century. The chapter on Roderick Hudson refers to James’s life in Rome and discusses the ways that the characters relate to one another.Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. A valuable study that includes discussion of his work, with substantial comment on Roderick Hudson.Ford, Ford Madox. Henry James: A Critical Study. New York: Octagon Books, 1972. Short, readable study of James by a fine novelist.Lee, Brian. The Novels of Henry James. London: Edward Arnold, 1978. A short study of the relation of culture to the individual. Includes a chapter on Roderick Hudson that discusses James’s enthusiasm for European culture.McCormack, Peggy. The Rule of Money: Gender, Class, and Exchange Economics in the Fiction of Henry James. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990. Discusses how James’s characters learn to adjust to the rules of the game in their society. Useful for understanding the mores and practices of a departed era.
Categories: Places