The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

  1. How does its publication in 1884 situate this essay in the context of fiction or criticism of the time?
  2. How would you characterize James’ tone and style throughout? Are there instances of slyness or irony, and if so, do these contribute to his arguments?
  3. What does James believe should be the relationship between the theory and practice of literature? (855)
  4. What do you think is James’ purpose in couching his views on fiction in terms of a debate with Walter Besant? What does he seem to think are some flaws in Besant’s prescriptions?
  5. What does James give as the purpose of a novel, and what does he mean by this? (856) Would all agree?
  6. With which forms of art/writing thought does he believe the novel is rightly allied? (856-57)
  7. What does he mean by his censure of novelists who “give themselves away”? Which school of literary critics would have agreed with him? On what basis might such practices be defended? (856-57)
  8. What does James mean by the claim that the novelist’s task is similar to that of the historian? (857)
  9. What misconceptions of the role of artistry does he ascribe to the influence of “our Protestant communities”? (857) What other views of the proper content of fiction does he parody? (859)
  10. What does James seem to mean in his statement that “it emits its light and stimulates our desire for perfection” (858), and how do you reconcile this with his later attack on the notion of a “moral” art? (868)
  11. In what context does James claim that the novel must be “perfectly free” (858)? To what standard must we hold the novel? (859) What is the reflection of a novel’s success, and how may this be measured? (859)
  12. What does James find wrong with Besant’s claim that the “laws of fiction” may be laid down and taught precisely? (859-61) What does James mean by “experience,” and how may one obtain it? (861)
  13. What does James object to in the notion that character and plot may be separated, even for discussion? (862, 865-66) What notions of plot or “adventure” does he find limited?
  14. Are all plots and subjects of equal value? Can we rank them in inherent quality?
  15. Why does James attack the notion that art arranges or selects experience, and would this preclude the novelist’s craft? (864-65) What types of novels might seem to follow his prescriptions?
  16. What does James mean by the “donnee” of a novel? How does it differ from a “story” in the sense of plot?
  17. If you are familiar with James’ novels, do these seem to follow his own prescriptions? Do they seem to you highly realistic?
  18. What kinds of prescriptions advocated by Walter Besant and others does James find especially narrowing? Can you think of ways in which the Victorians might have imposed a “conventional” view of certain topics on the plot? (865)
  19. How does James introduce his own fictional practice tongue-in-cheek? (866) What kinds of subject matter does he go out of his way to defend? (867)
  20. What are James’ views on the relationship between morality and art? (868) On what grounds does he charge English-language novelists with timidity and moral cowardice? How unconventional would these views have been in his day?
  21. What final advice would James offer a young novelist? What are the pitfalls of excessive pessimism or excessive optimism? (869)
  22. Do you see resemblances between James’ views and those of Kant, Hegel or Aristotle? Which schools of nineteenth or twentieth-century literature or criticism would have agreed with/differed with him?




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