The Subjective Adventure of Fleda Vetch (1964)
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While most recent critics praise Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton as heralding the triumph of his ‘major phase’, they disagree about the moral substance of the novel.1 To some, Fleda Vetch’s renunciation of Owen Gereth and the spoils is an heroic act in a sordid world; it ennobles Owen and establishes Fleda as the embodiment of the moral sense2 Others find Fleda’s sacrificial act one of ‘moral hysteria’, destroying not only her own life but the happiness of Owen and his mother, Mrs Gereth.3 But both of these ethical readings are based upon the dubious assumption that Fleda, the register and center of the novel, is a reliable reflector who acts according to a high moral standard and whose evaluation of herself and others is beyond question. The doubtfulness of such an assumption, I think, is suggested by the qualifications with which critics spice their interpretations of Fleda, one, for example, arguing forcibly that Fleda is admirable but admitting that her ‘character will not perfectly stand scrutiny’,4 and another conceding that, though ‘Fleda alone is willing to sacrifice no one but herself’, she is disconcertingly often a sophist.5
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- 1.Oscar Cargill, The Novels of Henry James (New York, 1961) pp. 218–43.Google Scholar
- 5.Alan H. Roper, ‘The Moral and Metaphorical Meanings of The Spoils of Poynton’ in American Literature xxxii(May, 1960)193–4,196.Google Scholar
- 12.Charles G. Hoffmann, The Short Novels of Henry James (New York, 1957) p. 67.Google Scholar