Places: The Sacred Fount

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1901

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1890’s

Places DiscussedNewmarch

Newmarch. Sacred Fount, TheHouse in the English countryside, somewhere between London and Birmingham. Because of the “detective” angle to the story, Newmarch bears a faint resemblance to a remote Gothic estate. However, while the Gothic heroines of literature are usually isolated from civilization and friends, Henry James’s unidentified narrator is in Newmarch for a social occasion–indeed, a familiar social ritual.

Newmarch represents the height of British civilization: A place in which wit and appearances are the supreme values. It is seemingly the superficiality of the social gathering that makes the narrator imagine all kinds of “horrors” beneath the too-perfect surface, after he detects what seems to him to be a “flaw.” In typical Jamesian irony, this “flaw” is a mysterious “improvement” in the wit of one of the guests, which actually makes him “fit in” to Newmarch better than before. Newmarch provides precisely the kind of atmosphere in which a subtle narrator may be expected to flourish. It is “the great asylum of the finer wit,” in which people meet to do nothing but talk brilliantly–unless the narrator is correct and they also meet to conduct shadowy love affairs. The narrator’s theory of the hidden depths of Newmarch may be the finest flower of its superficiality and idleness.

During an apparently perfectly innocent scene in which guests at Newmarch gather in the evening to hear a pianist that the narrator, in a moment of epiphany, makes a connection between the inhuman beauty and order and cold composure of the kind of society represented by Newmarch and its capacity for cruelty, as though by its refusal to acknowledge certain aspects of reality it victimizes the people who represent them. High society forces one to wear a mask that betrays no emotion. The ugliness of truth and suffering would destroy the serene beauty of what the narrator calls “our civilized state.” The beauty of Newmarch is predicated on repression and denial.

The disjunction between masklike appearances and a horrifying reality at Newmarch is most explicitly brought out in a grotesque painting in the gallery of a man holding a mask. One of the characters offers the interpretation that the figure is holding a mask of Death, but the narrator objects that it is the man’s real face that is a death-mask, which makes the hard, inhuman, object of art into a mask of Life. Thus, the inhabitants of Newmarch, in the narrator’s opinion, conceal the horrifying truth of the immanence of death by wearing inhumanly perfect masks while living a kind of death-in-life that denies profound emotion along with everything else unpleasant.

BibliographyBlackall, Jean Frantz. Jamesian Ambiguity and “The Sacred Fount.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1965. Uses the novel as the principal example to illustrate the novelist’s handling of ambiguity in his fiction. Calls the work an “intellectual detective story” in which the reader, not the narrator, is cast in the role of the detective, tasked to determine where truth lies in this complex tale of social relationships.Gargano, James W., ed. Critical Essays on Henry James: The Late Novels. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Includes excerpts from three reviews by James’s contemporaries, and a twentieth century essay justifying the novelist’s narrative method and defending the sanity of the narrator.Jones, Granville H. Henry James’s Psychology of Experience: Innocence, Responsibility, and Renunciation in the Fiction of Henry James. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Mouton, 1975. Psychological analysis of James’s major fiction. Extensive discussion of the narrator’s role in The Sacred Fount; provides useful commentary from earlier critics of the novelist’s complex method of presenting his story.Kappeler, Susanne. Writing and Reading in Henry James. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. A major section of this study is devoted to an examination of The Sacred Fount; explores the function of the narrator, who serves not only to record but also to interpret experience. Claims James breaks down traditional barriers between writer, critic, and reader.Sicker, Philip. Love and the Quest for Identity in the Fiction of Henry James. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. Concentrates on the psychological dimensions of the novel. Believes the source of the ambiguity lies in James’s “presentation of two differing views of identity.” Discusses the role of the narrator. Claims the novel reveals James’s vision of love in human relationships.
Categories: Places