New York: The Library of America
Why read it? Novel. Why read any Henry James novel or story? The insightful ideas about human relationships. The wit, the cleverness, the surprise at the language. Almost like Emerson, James writes in the sentence. It’s like an evening with Oscar Wilde. The characters take their shape. They don’t move very often. They talk. But clever talk it is.
That’s why I read Roderick Hudson.
Roderick Hudson is an egotist who manipulates people. We all know the type. It’s probably one part of all our personalities. He makes no attempt to hide his self-absorption. He makes no attempt to hide his making use of other people. In telling the story, James gives the reader some not-too-sophisticated insights into the world of sculpting. And of Rome and of Florence and of Switzerland, and Northampton, Massachusetts, by contrast with the former.
Plot Summary: Wealthy, idle, Rowland Mallet befriends a young, egotistical, brilliant sculptor in Northampton, Massachusetts, America, Roderick Hudson, taking him to Rome to study antique statuary, where he creates several small works that are well received by experts in the arts. He falls in love with a beautiful young European woman who teases him, then is attracted to him, but marries a prince.
In the meantime, Rowland has fallen in love with Roderick’s fiancée, Mary Garland, with no apparent reciprocity.
Roderick has become so infatuated with Christina Light that at her invitation, he wants to follow her and her prince even though they have been married. He needs money. Rowland, who has freely given what Roderick has asked for, as his patron, feeling that this is a destructive course of action, withholds it. In the course of a long discussion, Rowland tells Roderick that he is a selfish, spoiled child, and then admits he loves Mary Garland, Roderick is surprised, and walks thoughtfully off into the Swiss Alps from which he does not return. Whether on purpose or by accident, he has fallen to his death at the height of a thunderstorm.
Rowland who has generously supported Roderick, his mother and Mary Garland, pays their passage back to Northampton, Massachusetts. When he visits Mrs. Hudson and Mary, Mrs. Hudson, who blames Rowland for Roderick’s death, will not see him, but Mary does. And Rowland waits, perhaps forever, and probably in vain, for Mary Garland to return his love.
Roderick is a spoiled brat genius. Rowland is the uncomplaining supportive patron who accepts all of Roderick’s sleights without showing any resentment. Roderick basks in the worship and adulation of his friends and uses them or disposes of them at whim. He cares only for his own feelings, never for the feelings of anyone else. Rowland, Roderick’s mother and Miss Garland think they own and control Roderick, but they don’t. They are owned and manipulated by Roderick.
At one point in the dialogue, it becomes a contest to learn how little these people say they care for each other. Everyone cares for Roderick; he cares not a tittle for anyone but Christina Light, and the rest of them go out of their way to insist that they couldn’t care less for anyone but Roderick. Rowland and Mary Garland have sacrificed everything for Roderick, who nonchalantly goes away to fall off a mountain as if in dying, he has given his final reward for all of their concern.
This novel is James’s first or second [I think Watch and Ward was his first] novel. It will be interesting to see how the focus of his novels shifts as James grows in his art. One thing I will say for Henry James in his early stages: he is fun to read, if only for the one- or two-sentence insights into life, character and relationships that he drops into his sometimes very long paragraphs.
Tomorrow: Ideas and Quotes to Discuss.