Novelette: The Figure in the Carpet

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The Figure in the Carpet, by Henry James

First appeared in Cosmopolis: A Literary Review, January–February 1896; now on and Google Books and no doubt elsewhere

15,394 words

I love the weirdness of this novelette. I love the idea that some novelist’s coded artistic statement could become a central concern in four different people’s lives (I’ve read science fiction less far-fetched). I love the absurdity of the marriage-as-barter, and the suspiciously convenient deaths. I love how we never really find out if Vereker’s confession is exaggerated, if Corvick and Gwendolen are playing some sort of elaborate courtship game, and of course, if the narrator is phenomenally deluded. At the end, after he infects poor, foolish Drayton Deane with his “unappeased desire,” he adds, “[T]here are really moments when I feel it to be quite my revenge.” I love that line. It’s ridiculous but true—when curiosity cannot be satisfied, when suspense cannot be broken, the next best thing is to share the pain. (Reminds me a bit of the short story “Poor Albert Floated When He Died.”)

I love the satire (at least I think it’s satire) on literary criticism. The narrator loses all the pleasure of reading because he’s obsessed with the “figure.” He has so little concrete interest in his subject that we never hear mention of a plot, a character, a prose style, or even a title, and he admits to being more drawn to Vereker himself than to his work. His notion of the figure is blatantly an adolescent notion of sex, all lust and no nuance—“This was above all what I wanted to know: had she seen the idol unveiled? Had there been a private ceremony for a palpitating audience of one? For what else but that ceremony had the nuptials taken place?” As for Corvick, he’s so shallow that his only initial comment on Vereker is, “‘[H]e gives me a pleasure so rare; the sense of’—he mused a little—‘something or other.'” He claims to see the figure as though by revelation.

I love that Lady Jane doesn’t own any of Vereker’s books.

This novella is basically the working out of an idea; there’s no vivid emotional content or characterization. It probably doesn’t say anything good about my tastes that I find this kind of thing thoroughly unboring. Same with Kafka at his most droning and David Foster Wallace at his most long-winded.

Not sure where the cutoff lies between “short story” and “novella,” but this feels like a short book to me, probably because of the chapters. Edited to add: Supposedly this length makes it a novelette.