The Golden Bowl

by Henry James

Paperback, 1937

Call number




Popular Library (1937)


Classic Literature. Fiction. HTML: The Golden Bowl is an intense, involved study of marriage, adultery and family ties. The central characters are a man and his daughter and James delves into their consciousness to explore the complexity of their relationship to each other and their respective spouses. The novel is often considered the completion of the "major phase" of James' career..

User reviews

LibraryThing member RoseCityReader
Only Henry James can take a beguiling idea like quasi-incestuous adultery, add an Italian prince, a billionaire art collector, and exotic foreign travel, and make a story so tedious that it is a true chore to read.

James writes in wisps of ideas, continually layering these wisps until there is a
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shimmery, translucent image that gives an idea of what he is trying to get at. These literary holograms are sometimes pretty, often interesting up to a point, but there is no substance to them. By the time the image emerges from the wisps, all I can think is, “So what?”

I can appreciate the talent it took to write an entire novel without saying anything directly. James definitely had a skill that he developed to the utmost. But while I admire the talent, I have no desire to make it a part of my life. I appreciate James’s talent the way I appreciate that of the artists who can paint the face of Jesus on a grain of rice. Impressive, but I’m not going to collect a gallery of rice portraits.
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LibraryThing member ElizabethChapman
I love Henry James' work -- I can think of no other writer that glares so mercilessly and relentlessly into the human soul. The Golden Bowl of the title is a metaphor for every person and situation in the novel: a seemingly perfect and priceless object that contains a subtle, but debilitating
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Anyone who has ever had an affair will feel heart break at the desperation, connivance, and manipulation of Prince Amerigo and Charlotte Stant. Anyone who has for a moment felt the power of those with money will recognize the insouciant cruelty of Adam Verner. And anyone who has known a person who is young and careless and privileged will spot the innocent ruthlessness of Maggie Verner.

I've read "The Golden Bowl" several times and as I get older, it becomes more and more fascinating and nuanced. To everyone who is giving it a try for the first time, please don't give up on it. It's true it is not an easy book, but it is also a novel that rewards you a hundred fold for the effort you put into it. As only a truly great book can, it makes you see the world -- and yourself -- in a new and not entirely flattering light.
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LibraryThing member messpots
I'm not able to review this novel without a few small spoilers and I apologise for that.

Henry James finds his plots in unlikely places, and the story that slowly unfolds in this novel demonstrates this wonderfully. There are two halves. The first half of the novel lulls the reader into thinking
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that two cultured Europeans are taking advantage of a slightly distracted American father and his gormless American daughter. We're introduced to the idea that the father, a collector of precious things, has naively 'collected' an exotic son-in-law (though no critical reader will be terribly impressed with that little trope — yet). We're also introduced to the golden bowl itself, an object that one of the Europeans cannot value, and that the other rejects out of hand on account of a defect. At the end of the first half, the advantage is with the Europeans.

The second half of the novel reveals the canniness and, more importantly, the goodness and good sense, of the 'gormless' daughter. She's the star. She recognises that her husband's defects are not fatal to his overall worth (i.e., he is nonetheless a thing of value, just as the golden bowl is a thing of value notwithstanding its defect). Most importantly, she is a better judge of quality than the two Europeans. Thus she sets out to put things right, and she succeeds without exciting their suspicion. 'They thought of everything but that I might think' says the daughter, near the end. I was tempted to find a 'revenge of the Americans' theme here, but it's really the triumph of the daughter alone.

The chapter divisions are clever; they don't mark off scenes from one another in the conventional manner. They often fall in the very middle of a bit of dialogue, and signal some advancement in one or another character's understanding. This serves James's preferred way of advancing the story: the interaction of human thoughts. A character sees somebody do something, or talks to somebody, or learns of something somebody has done, and this new intelligence provokes that character to some new action or statement or level of understanding. This, in turn, sends another character by similar means into something new. James sets up these interactions so well, that the reader sees what he is about to reveal an instant before he reveals it.

But James doesn't always pull this off. There are great long passages where one character is drawing out a second character in a contrived way, simply to allow that second character to give expression to some key thought that the reader would otherwise never get wind of. Fanny Assingham draws out Maggie in this way many times, and Fanny's husband, the Colonel, seem to exist as a character solely for this purpose.

Another problem, common to late Henry James, is that his sentences often misfire. I.e., they don't express what he means them to express, or they give the false impression that they're expressing more than they actually do. I'm not as critical as others are. I would judge his late style by what he was obviously capable of producing and did sometimes produce.
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LibraryThing member jasonwryan
This is why he was called 'The Master.'
LibraryThing member dale01
Very challenging but well worth the effort!
LibraryThing member edwinbcn
The Golden Bowl is another fascinating novel by Henry James. It must be said, though, that this novel is very difficult to read. Despite the fact that there are very few characters, basically only five, the long sentences, unusual turns of phrase, natural conversation and the use of pronouns call
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for very careful reading. The other thing is that there is not much of a plot, and very little action. Most chapters describe endless conversations, observations and contemplations

The symbolism of the golden bowl is difficult to understand. It seems the author has had an ideosyncratic idea of its symbolism, or the author's focus would be more on the binding through gilding while most readers focus on the (supposed) hidden flaw. This is borne out by the end of the story as the pairs choose to stay together, while the doubt remains till the very end.

This ending is also different from other novels by Henry James, where the conclusion is often a miserable state for the women. The Golden Bowl seems to be a novel that tests the expectations of the reader as much as of the characters, and perfection is found when least expected.
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LibraryThing member JVioland
It appears as though his earlier works were better written. By the time I got to "The Wings of the Dove" (1902) I had grown tired of him. By the end of his career, there wasn't a simple action or thought that he couldn't convey in an unending stream of words. His mantra seemed to be, "I could be
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succinct, but why? I enjoy writing. I couldn't give a damn whether I burden the reader with my verbal diarrhea." A highly overrated writer, maybe because he was an ex-patriot.
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LibraryThing member brakketh
Incredibly internal and intimate novel. I struggled with sections that felt meandering but overall I found it a very impressive work.
LibraryThing member DanielSTJ
Although adequately written, this novel is dull. I found, as a reader, I did not care for the characters or the plot. I also feel as if it did not age well with the passage of time. It is a shame, as The Turn of the Screw was a much better work.
LibraryThing member ritaer
a triangle with a difference
LibraryThing member skavlanj
I began reading the Modern Library List of the 100 Best Novels shortly after the list was published, and thought I had finished it some time around 2004 or 2005. Recently I discovered that instead of having read Henry James' The Golden Bowl, I read The Taming of the Shrew. So I corrected my mistake
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and have, by reading this novel, truly finished the Modern Library list.*

The Golden Bowl is a love quadrangle, and an unconvincing one at that. Maggie Verver marries Prince Amerigo of Italy. Her father, Adam, marries Charlotte Stant several years later. Unbeknownst to either Maggie or her father, Amerigo and Charlotte knew each other prior to meeting their spouses, were very much in love, but were unfortunately too poor to marry. That fact is believable as far as the Prince's reason for marrying into wealth, as he was first to the trough. It fails to withstand scrutiny when considering Charlotte's subsequent marriage to Adam, particularly when coupled with the fact that Maggie and Charlotte have been friends since childhood. Having Charlotte conceal her former intimacy with the Prince casts her as a conniving gold-digger, far from the light James portrays her in throughout the novel. Further complicating the plot, Maggie and her father have an especially close (odd, unrealistic) bond and spend an inordinate amount of time together after their marriages, leaving Amerigo and Charlotte to entertain each other. And to begin the adulterous affair they were forced into by the neglect of their spouses (as James appears to contend).

My major argument with the novel is the way in which the affair is discovered. The eponymous golden bowl appears twice in the story. First, Charlotte offers to buy it as a gift for the Prince on the day before his wedding, when they are purportedly shopping for a gift from her to Maggie. The Prince refuses, noting a defective crack in the bowl. Four years later, Maggie purchases the bowl as a birthday gift for her father when she just happens - in all of London - to chance upon the same shop while wandering home from a visit to the museum. Maggie discovers the infidelity when the shopkeeper, out of guilt for having overcharged her, tracks her down to refund a portion of the purchase price. While at her house, he sees pictures of the Prince and Charlotte and magically remembers not only their having looked at the bowl four years earlier but also their conversation about Maggie. Even James realizes the ridiculousness of this plot device and enlists the Prince to tell Maggie that such coincidences only occur in novels and plays. This attempt at irony fails to absolve James for having included it in the novel.

James seems incapable of writing a direct sentence. While his writing is not overly difficult to comprehend, you quickly tire of the multiple diversions seemingly every sentence takes. You also tire of page after page of dense prose containing a minimum of paragraphs. One sentence can last most of a page. One paragraph can go on for three or four pages. Maybe at this point in his career James was considered too "great" for an editor to suggest revisions to his text, but just eliminating all the "for that matter" and "in any case" and similar pointless clauses which litter most of his prose would reduce the novel by dozens of pages without altering the reader's understanding. His characters speak - when they speak, for this novel suffers from a dearth of dialogue and action - in horrific dialogue both stilted and affected. The conversations between Maggie and her father are so lacking in specifics, which James maddeningly refuses to supply in his endless analysis of them, that they often end without any clear indication of what they were discussing.

I could go on for several hundred words criticizing The Golden Bowl for its contrived, pretentious nature. I haven't even mentioned Fanny Assingham, who introduces Maggie to the Prince despite knowing he was in love with Charlotte. The same Fanny who also knows of the affair, does not disclose it to Maggie and yet remains her friend and confidant, even after Maggie learns of Fanny's deception. I have not questioned what is so great about Adam Verver - James (through Maggie) portrays him as such but refuses to provide any details to justify the attribution. I haven't nitpicked how the titular bowl can be, as James describes it, "shattered" into three pieces.

Obviously I found this book unbelievable and unworthy of inclusion on major reading lists (e.g. 1001 Books). My wish is that it was actually as good as the introduction in my copy made it sound. I doubt the majority of non-academic readers would list it among their favorites or recommend it to a friend.

* - with the exception of Finnegans Wake, which I refuse to finish reading on the grounds of good taste and its failure to conform to what I consider a novel.
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LibraryThing member ivanfranko
The work of a genius. James suffered from writer's cramp, so we can imaging his dictating this to a dutiful and careful copier. Fantastically subtle language that, one feels, James has worked hard to perfect, produces a psychological awareness that is a new innovation in novel development.
And it is
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at root an American novel, where monied wealth wins out. Father and daughter win. Power out wits Love.
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