Literature Annotations


James, Henry
The Figure in the Carpet


Genre Short Story (43 pp.)
KeywordsColonialism, Communication, Death and Dying, Family Relationships, Literary Theory, Love, Narrative as Method, Obsession, Sexuality
Summary

The narrator, a writer, prides himself on his astute review of Hugh Vereker's latest novel. Vereker dismisses his efforts, explaining that all critics have "missed my little point," "the particular thing I've written my books most for," "the thing for the critic to find," "my secret," "like a complex figure in a Persian carpet." The narrator racks his brains and, in desperation, tells his friend Corvick of the puzzle. Corvick and his novelist fiancée, Gwendolyn, pursue "the trick" without success until Corvick, traveling alone in India, wires Gwendolyn and the narrator "Eureka! Immense."

He refuses, however, to divulge the secret to Gwendolyn until after they are married, and then dies in a car crash. Since Gwendolyn refuses to share her knowledge, the narrator speculates, "the figure in the carpet [was] traceable or describable only for husbands and wives--for lovers supremely united." She marries Drayton Deane, and after her death, the narrator approaches Deane to discover the secret. But Deane is surprised and humiliated by the news of his wife's great "secret," and he and the narrator conclude by sharing the same throbbing curiosity.

Commentary

Although this story only tangentially portrays what we think of as "medical" topics, its focus on hermeneutics--the process of interpretation, of diagnosis if you will--renders it useful for provoking discussion of the process and purpose of reading in both literature and medicine. This story challenges simplistic notions of interpretation and diagnosis by pitting a traditional, author-centered philosophy of reading (which James seems to endorse) against one in which texts, as poststructuralist theory argues, cannot finally sustain or fulfill their allusion to some transcendental, universal "signified."

The story engages with debates in literary theory by raising some crucial questions: What "counts" as evidence in a literary (or medical) reading of the text (or patient)? Who has (or gains) access to "the truth" of the text (or the patient) and how do they do so? How do we arrive at (if we arrive at) certainty? How do we communicate our findings? What makes any particular reading "true"?

This story also illuminates the degree to which our culture mystifies sexuality as a forbidden state of knowledge, which propriety dictates be reserved only for the married. James seems to propose marriage as a joint project, specifically a hermeneutic one, directed toward achieving a kind of doubled reading of this seminal, sexual truth--as Corvick and Gwendolyn worked together on unraveling Vereker's secret message during their courtship.

But in fact, Corvick's and Gwendolyn's cooperation rapidly disappears from the text; Corvick in fact attains a state of knowledge only upon leaving Gwendolyn (breaking off their engagement) for India. Although Gwendolyn eventually learns the secret from Corvick, her decision not to share it with Deane renders him figuratively as impotent as the frustrated narrator.

In fact, the story concludes its critique of marriage by suggesting instead a homosexual union, subversive in its similarity to Corvick's engagement with Gwendolyn: a couple (the narrator and Deane) both ignorant of and titillated by the secret, together looking to master it. Critics have argued that this story (like Vereker's unhelpful metaphors for his secret) is structured by the logic of "the closet," and that the knowledge the narrator seeks is ultimately that of a queer sexuality.

SourceThe Figure in the Carpet, and Other Stories
PublisherPenguin
Edition1986
EditorsFrank Kermode
Place PublishedLondon
MiscellaneousFirst published in Cosmopolis, January 1896
Annotated by Kennedy, Meegan
Date of Entry 04/13/01
Last Revised 05/22/01