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.