“The Figure in the Carpet” – Henry James

Henry James (1843 – 1916) wrote his novella, “The Figure in the Carpet”, in 1896. An American, who spent his early and later years in England, James wrote the well known novels “Washington Square” (1880), “Portrait of a Lady” (1881), and “The Turn of the Screw” (1898).

“The Figure in the Carpet” was a bit tricky to begin with. I read the first 5 pages and thought “What’s going on?”. So I re-read them and I’m glad I did or I would have missed a treat. As one might expect, the writing is very much of its own time – late 19th century. The first page has a word I had never heard of and had to look up – “lucubrations” which I now know refers to laborious study.

The story within this novella is, as intended, a bit of a puzzle. A critic meets one of his favourite authors who hints that all his books and writings have a hidden theme. The author will not divulge it and consequently the critic is intrigued, one might say obsessed even, as well he might be. The critic, in turn, divulges this information to a friend. Later, the friend informs the critic he has found the key to the theme, but he dies before divulging the answer. The author then dies without revealing his theme. Confused? You won’t be if you read this for yourself.

As the secret theme never sees the light of day the quesion left hanging in the air is – “Did the theme ever exist in the first place?”. Just because someone says they have a secret, can we be sure they have one if they never tell us what it is? A puzzle within a puzzle.

Other than being a great read, (a much better read in the original than summary or review), this story gave rise to the term “The Figure in the Carpet” being a reference to a hidden literary theme. In 1941 in his preface to “A Choice of Kipling’s Verse”, T. S. Eliot wrote “Nowadays we all look for the figure in the carpet.”

image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2a/Henry_James_%282871171944%29_%28cropped%29.jpg

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