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Awkward Realism: Objects of Coercion in What Maisie Knew & The Awkward Age


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1What kind of experience is it to read novels experimenting with the representation of the experience of meaning, like What Maisie Knew (1897) and The Awkward Age (1899); to read, that is, for what is felt as a necessarily objectified or presentified meaning, and then to reread for a meaning necessarily differential, as James’s Maisie and the sympathetic subjects of The Awkward Age find and lose themselves in doing? Secondly, what does our experience of this reading (and rereading) mean? On what semiotic or phenomenological ground would it be legitimate to ask, without falling into logical positivism and the aridities of “the meaning of meaning”, whether the difference between these two questions might be similar to the distinction William James makes in Chapter X of Principles of Psychology, in asking, “are [our bodies] ours, or are they simply us?” The ground of meaning in the novels manifests itself in complex relations to bodily or vocal metaphor: it can be carried as movement on “the shock of (...) a change of tone” (What Maisie Knew 108), or be sunk into, a body released from its libidinal syncopations with “the sweet sense of success” of Maisie “dashed” by her mother “almost to the bottom” of the stairs—and on this shocked body the chapter ends (116).

2In these two novels from James’s so-called experimental period, mental, narrative and ethical development are given as cognate, constructed on shifting points of view indexed not to the psychology of an individual subject but to the text as the ground of a dislocated and dislocating intersubjectivity, provisionally dialogic within the uncertain communities and solipsisms of meaning, coerced by metaphoric ecstasy or embodiment and metonymic doom or disembodiment; not of course a dichotomy, but figures of substitution in a tension between discourse and seme from which new meaning emerges awkwardly, as one thing turns into another. Mr Longdon in The Awkward Age, a man with “private means” (109) and “thoroughly personal (...) meanings” (38, 45), and therefore in some sense a personification of the realist novel,

(...) as if under the coercion of so much confidence, had stood in place longer than for any previous moment, and the spell continued for a minute after Mitchy had paused. Then nervously, abruptly, he turned away, and his friend watched him rather aimlessly wander. (107)

3In What Maisie Knew the thematics of semiotic interpretation and the experience of meaning are mapped on to pathologies of intentionality between poles of infantile panic trapped between demand and desire, between the imaginary and the symbolic. In the later novel the mapping is on to a passionless intellectual sophistication, where the multiple reflexive intelligences of an apparent intellectual utopia—in which, as Mrs Brook has it, “my life has something to do with my mind, and my mind something to do with my talk. Good talk (...)” (210)—are “apt rather more to exchange sharp and silent searchings than to fix their eyes on the object itself" (96). Although at the same time “Fear is fear” and “kindness is kindness too—that’s all one can say” (163)—affect is differentiated, analogic and irreducible—nevertheless “We call everything—anything. The meaning of it, if you and I put it so, is—well, a modern shade” (205). The dislocated pattern of utterances relentlessly directed towards the reader of The Awkward Age is deflected in the very reading by the need to constitute a listener who might already have uttered the statement, might have understood or empathized with it; hence the recurrent present tense of this description, a flattening of utterance which a rereading collapses remarkably into a more relentlessly ethical narrative reminiscent at times of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In What Maisie Knew, on the other hand, utterances are differently directed at the reader and introjected by the desire for reference. In The Awkward Age an utterance such as “He’ll tell you what I meant just now” (119) splits pronominally between meaning as signification and meaning as intention, between statement and performance. It also of course, in a space haunted by a dream of presence, indicates the vestigial fear of the annihilation of the ethical self (the losing of the lyric index) through the same slippage of purchase on the real which is the creative motive of reference, its promise of a future, of a continuity of experience. This, incidentally, “a desire for information as to the continuity of a certain sentiment,” is sought by Maisie as one of the central compensations for her experience of shame (What Maisie Knew 35). Whether “a certain sentiment”—love—achieves effective presence through continuity (incidentally the essential phenomenological principle of Peirce’s Pragmatism) is the ethical motive driving Longdon in the later novel: “He had indeed no presence, but he had somehow an effect” (The Awkward Age 28).

4The novels ostensibly narrate growth and development, the first taking a child as “ironic centre” of consciousness representing the “impressions” of which she is the “register” (“Preface” 6), until it reaches the absolute dialectical irony of an “innocence saturated with knowledge” (132), a metaphor seeking plenitude, embodiment, stasis, “the complete vision, private but final” (25) devoutly desired by Maisie and the dangerously sympathetic reader; that duplicitous “saturation” which is both the aesthetic limit of realism and the ecstatic or ekphrastic sign of performative truth (i.e. literariness, classical energeia, the shimmering of signifiers that Roland Barthes calls signifiance [Barthes 1982 229]). The “private”, we may note, unless it is taken to indicate the novel itself, conflicts with what would seem precisely to indicate privacy: the “final” stopping of sequential time. The text desires the essential body, but it cannot be that. The second novel works peristaltically through a series of contracting and dilating dramatic “scenes” of conversation around the imminent but constantly deferred “I do” of a marriage (proposal and acceptance)—J.L. Austin’s archetypally normative performative. The young woman, Nanda, has perhaps already passed out of childhood innocence into an unspecified knowledge morally deleterious and destructive of tradition, her innocence being analogically referenced to the past, the dead Lady Julia, a kind of inverted, whitened and now patriarchal Miss Jessel, the ghost from The Turn of the Screw, published the year before. The books stage dynamic and unstable relations between narrative discourse, affect and the object world within what Barthes calls the generally predictive structure of narrative (Barthes 1984 168). These are suspended by a dense, strangely aporetic construction of reference as hiatus. In Maisie this is figured as “the immediate” of the child’s percipuum, to use Peirce’s term (comprising both what phenomenology calls the noetic and the noematic, the intentional object); in The Awkward Age as the original dialogic grounding of the ethical self, in which “you can’t, at least, originally have begun” (250), as Nanda, having announced that “I haven’t what’s called a principle of growth” (165), says to Vanderbank, the man who cannot decide whether to “go in”, to say “I do” (cf. the inversion of Vanderbank’s “I do?” to Longdon [296]). Rather it is Longdon who, on first experiencing the collapse of time in the analogical presencing of Lady Julia in Nanda (who may be one and another, her name a pure metabolon, both metonymy and metaphor), resituates the properly narrative performative as speech act: “It brought to his lips a kind of ejaculation—‘I say!’” (114).

5Conflicting temporalities of narration, story and reading experience thus become, as objects, both signified and referent, in the play of signs of the performative. This brings the form of the narration, in the Aristotelian sense traced by Ricœur in the first volume of Temps et récit, close to being, coercively, the form of our experience of time. But since each reader is also “private but final”, coercion, as for Longdon, invites us to turn away, to create ecstatic or awkward new meaning. The Prefaces, written ten years after the novels, invite the reader to think of generic considerations, the “kinds” of experience (“‘Kinds’ are the very life of literature” [The Awkward Age 18]), as framing the genetically conceived reference, subjects organically nurtured by a maternal author, given the the form of a frame; the originally innocent story is saturated with retrospective knowledge, its innocence ethically altered and therefore aesthetically redeemed, contrary to the now lost original gesture of aesthetic alteration and ethical redemption. In both, the predictive movement is bound up with an affect of shame, associated for Maisie with her origin in a vicious divorce as a perverted primal scene of the novel’s diegetic preface, for Nanda with the immorality of knowledge which defines her mother’s modernity, andpossibly even more so her own, against the purity of her dead grandmother, Lady Julia, who is felt by the revenant Mr Longdon to be her physical and ethical analogy. Thus although neither the reflector nor the reader, the ironic subject of the repeated act of uttering which listening and reading (differently) are, “can originally have begun,” the scene—the experience of meaning—always already has. The figure is quite thoroughly Emersonian: “At this moment he heard his name pronounced from behind and, on turning, found himself joined by the elderly fellow-guest(...)” (The Awkward Age 27). By being placed with Emerson’s “I conceive a man as always spoken to from behind, and unable to turn his head. In all the millions who have heard the voice, none ever saw the face” (“The Method of Nature”), this “behind” becomes rather more problematized, imaginatively, than in some queer theory readings of the same text.

6Tensions abound, therefore, between temporal experience as incremental, Wordsworthian, and as depleting; between time, sign of the natural object, as presence (the saturated) and time as the absented. In the Preface to The Awkward Age “coercive charm” (18) is what James calls his sacrifice of the “going behind” his dialogue to “the ‘mere’ story-teller’s great property-shop of aids to illusion” (18). Charm is Melvillean enchantment of transcendental or ecstatic romance: as in Benito Cereno, “trying to break one charm he was but becharmed anew” (ch. 6, “The boat appears”), although charm for James has been schooled by European realism. The coercion is the almost pedagogical necessity of turning one charm into or away from another, fullness and emptiness signifying each other, where the object of the pedagogy is differently the reader and a subject internal to and ecstatically previous to the discourse of the narrative, what Eve Sedgwick usefully calls James’s “inner child” (see below); a kind of inversion of Peirce’s thetic addressee of judgment, a “future version of the self”, one and another, in a process of emergence (from an 1892 text, “The Law of Mind”).

7Before looking more closely at the “the experience of meaning” in the novels I should like to mention two classic and possibly complementary readings. For Todorov, writing about The Awkward Age in his 1977 essay characteristically called “The Verbal Age”, “Every statement has become subject to an ontological suspicion; and we do not even know if it leads to any reality, nor if so, to what reality” (368). In this perspective, where “the treatment has become the subject and the subject a way of treating” (365), the conversations do not evoke events external to themselves, they “are events,” as if “language-as-narrative and language-as-action were no longer complementary aspects of a single activity: (...) the conversations form the story but do not recount it” (368). This reading sees all affect as undifferentiated on the far side of an essentially cognitive experience of the text: for all the indeterminacies it points to in the novel it remains largely a coded reading that denies the analogical relatio between the semiotic and symbolic processes of the text and any natural ground of those processes, however the natural were to be theorized. Much of course depends on whether “treating” is taken as an intransitive or transitive verb, and also on the rich possibilities offered by a third way of experiencing the virtual referencing of the text, what Barthes calls the “obtuse meaning,” le sens obtus, close to a particular kind of performativity; I will return to this question later.

8James himself, particularly in these two “experimental” novels, makes much play on the uncertain transitiveness of the verb “to know”, particularly. This seems crucial, in relation to temporal, ethical and affective imperatives that constitute the “coercive charm” of his “sacrifice” of a “going behind” which he had allowed himself in the Preface to Maisie, “to exaggerate the activity of her relation to [the facts of her spectacle]” (10). In Maisie, though, this “going behind” is just “taking advantage of these things better than she herself.” The narrator’s discourse will intervene when “those parts of her experience that she understands darken off into others that she rather tormentedly misses”. This affective discrimination, driven by the operation of these objects of coercion, seems to point beyond a phenomenological consideration of charm as reduction, and opens up readings of the novels that dispute the aesthetic of mastery. For example, in the 1998 collection of essays edited by John Carlos Rowe as The Other Henry James, readings historicize James as a critical theorist of developmental social and sexual engineering, commodity fetishism, the crisis of power in certain social elites at the end of the nineteenth century, and, for Ross Posnock, a more general problematics of modernity close to Adorno and Benjamin. Maisie, for example, carries the “emancipatory possibilities” of a dislocation from which one may “know (...) the gulf of our modernity” (Rowe 154). The queer theory readings of Eve Sedgwick revive the American psychologist Silvan Tompkins’s Theory of Affect to support an intermittently analogical reading of James that can ground his narrative epistemology in a metaphoric experience of the body of an “inner child” (Sedgwick 2003 40). For Tomkins, shame involves “the incomplete reduction of interest or joy” (quoted in Sedgwick and Frank 500) and thus, in Sedgwick’s use, maintains a metonymic economy that motivates narrative, while at the same time “introducing a particular boundary or frame into an analog continuum” (Wilden, quoted in Sedgwick and Frank 520): “Without positive affect, there can be no shame; only a scene that offeres you enjoyment or engages your interest can make you blush.” Shame, for Sedgwick, as “precarious hyperreflexivity of the surface of the body, can turn one inside out—or outside in” (520). We see something of this hyperreflexivity of intimacy and extimacy in James’s record of his mysterious 1861 “back” accident in Notes of a Son and Brother, which established a relationship with the world “at once extraordinarily intimate and quite awkwardly irrelevant” (Edel 175). And he wrote in 1899 to his ailing friend Howard Sturgis, of his back, “I verily write with it. I even wrote The Awkward Age with it; therefore look sharp!” For queer theory this underpins the homosexual secret of the bright hard medal which is his strange alloy of “bliss and bale” in the Preface to Maisie, “one face of which is somebody’s right and ease and the other somebody’s pain and wrong” as being an anatomical double entendre (Sedgwick 1995; see also, less subtly, Trask). In readers of “the other Henry James” ontological suspicion has been replaced by ideological differentiations grounded notably in history and the body.

9Sedgwick’s reading takes up as a “great conceptual value” Tomkins’s habit of “layering digital (on/off) with analog (graduated and/multiply differentiated) representational models” as the mode within which “any affect may have any ‘object’” to displace the Freudian emphasis on Oedipality and repression as the “basic source of complexity of human motivation and behaviour” within a range of “finitely many (n>2) values” (Sedgwick and Frank 503-11). While this certainly has the ethical value of narrowing Todorov’s infinitive reading of The Awkward Age, it still leaves the problem of how to decide which “analogically conceived, qualitative differences” (515) from within metaphors may be mapped not only to particular signifieds but also (because of that finitude of referencing) to particular referents: the homosexual secret that links Vanderbank and Mitchy—“Mitchy’s silent, Mitchy’s altered, Mitchy’s queer!” (The Awkward Age 303) says Nanda’s “tortuous” (296) mother  triumphantly when Mitchy’s cuckolding is being acted out behind the parlour door—the secret may need to remain free of the binary homo/hetero logic that Sedgwick’s reading combats, it may be suspended in the empty closet of the secret as “a homosexual secret” rather than “homosexuality” (Sedgwick 1990 201-2) but it nevertheless risks falling into the positivist discourse that Barthes, following Irigaray, defines as psychotic, “unable to subject an utterance to a negative transformation” (Barthes 1984 161). However, Sedgwick’s reading has the virtue of emphasizing the layered nature of the text coerced—dynamically confined—by the object world unstably before and after it (and before and behind) and by the natural ground of the body obliterated from its ontological privilege by the operations of discourse playing between the vestigial voice of the text and the system of language. The ontological privilege may be shifted to the reader: as has been remarked, no matter how interested we are in the characters, they will never be interested in us. What a shame, as Maisie’s Moddle would say. In the phenomenology of reading how is shame affected by the creation of new meaning?

10Underwriting the phenomenologies of reading the novels is the dramatized suspension of meaning. This may, as in Maisie, be due to a signified trauma, the violent divorce which creates the faultline standing metaphorically and perversely in place of a primal scene for Maisie, as a negative sign which generates the substitute parents who will serially fail to stand in the place of that divorce: “a young intelligence intensely aware something had happened which must matter a great deal and looking anxiously out for the effects of so great a cause.” (21). Her gaze is triangulated, looking ahead for effects, to divine the cause; the structure is a presentified after-effect, Freud’s Nachträgung brought into the “absolute actual” (24). How to recover the child, how can the child recover? These questions, which could only be synthetic afterthoughts, relate the symbolic fiction coercively to the referent of the experience of childhood; and James, in supplementing and dislocating the mimesis of a child’s consciousness with a differential narratorial authority, refracts and inverts the temporality of the text in order to intensify its performativity. The figure of development is carried inconsistently by the developments of narrative discourse, the infantile signified moving in and out of focus against the textual body of the signifier of the speech act as an act of authority. The performativity of the text feeds back into a reordering of the relations between self-reading and the world on the possibility of our having missed the meaning of the drama, “the real” as “things we cannot possibly not know, sooner or later, in one way or another,” as the Preface to The American has it. From the beginning, Maisie’s phantasmagoric world is embodied as the performance of a violent incorporation of the childish (analogic, non-developmental) lexicon into the periodicities through which syntax erases affect, or else carries affects after each other.

11Her first term was with her father, who spared her only in not letting her have the wild letters addressed to her by her mother: he confined himself to holding them up at her and shaking them, while he showed his teeth, and then amusing her by the way he chucked them, across the room, bang into the fire. Even at that moment, however, she had a scared anticipation of fatigue, a guilty sense of not rising to the occasion, feeling the charm of the violence with which the stiff unopened envelopes, whose big monograms—Ida bristled with monograms—she would have liked to see, were made to whizz, like dangerous missiles, through the air (21).

12“Chucked”, “bang”, “whizz”, are childish words (though not necessarily a child’s) that peversely order the utterance while depriving it of a recognizable (i.e. continuous) voice while the child’s desire (“she would have liked to see”) is rhythmically obscured by the doubly vocalised monograms (metonymy turned metaphor) and then obliterated by the whizzing movement of writing through the air. Who can say, on the explicit performatives, that the writing itself doesn’t whizz through the air? “Scared” is a child’s word; “anticipation of fatigue” frames her in an excessively distended adult consciousness. The affect of fear acts as an Augustinian distentio animi both on the fictional child and on the writing as transactional space within which it deploys, as metaphorical transitional object, the child’s perverted toy, the toy as perversion. The evacuation of meaning is performed on many levels. Feverish metonymies enroll her in adult desire: “The word [toothpick] stuck in her mind and contributed to her feeling from this time that she was deficient in something that would meet the general desire. She found out what it was(...)” (22). There follows an associative sequence of meanings for which the “short ugly name” is missing, and never appears in the text [the word of course is “fat”]. In this way the text installs an uncertainty of reference that extends to the basic shifters of deixis, for example whether pronouns are marked (restricted in reference) or unmarked (general): “You feel the strain—that’s where it is(...)Thus from the first Maisie not only felt it, but knew she felt it” (22). If “that” refers to “feeling the strain” then “it” becomes a general, unspecified pronoun; then the next “it” is not coreferential. This is a frequent feature of The Awkward Age: “‘She was a person with whom I could talk about her.’—Vanderbank took a moment to clear up the ambiguity. ‘Oh, you mean you could talk about the other!’” (47).

13At this point we can recognize the profoundly creative tension, in James’s work from this period, between reference and performance, partly cognate with what has commonly been theorized as the Romantic crisis of language. It may be traced in Maisie’s “two fathers at once” (46), Beale and Sir Claude, the natural and the cultural (the Romantic nexus of “fostering”), the necessary and the arbitrary, the essential and the relational, denotation and connotation, the ethical and the aesthetic, binaries which are not themselves exactly cognate, and each of which creates narrative desire. A similar tension, transposed experientially, underpins the double operation of metaphor as experience and as symbolic reference in Ricœur’s La métaphore vive. We may think of what is at stake when, in the middle of the sophisticated play of signifiers in The Awkward Age, Mitchy suddenly says, “The great thing’s the sacred terror” (227). The relation between the “play of signifiers” and the “intentional object” may not itself be playful.

14Effects, then, are cognate with performance, diffused through the text as what Eve Sedgwick has called periperformatives, a term which has critical resonance in spatializing the performative to create contexts for the analogical grounding of the signified within practices of embodiment crucial to the experience of meaning (Segwick 2003). A reference to Nanda as Beatrice to Vanderbank’s Benedick (The Awkward Age 243) indicates a first level of symbolization of the said and the unsaid, noting and nothing, as if in ironic recognition that there is Much Ado. Word play too—“She knows I know she knows(...)that he’s to be here is just one of those calculations that are subtle enough to put off the scent a woman who has but half a nose.” (69) In the catastrophe scene where Mrs Brook publicly breaks Nanda’s virtuous image she first makes a big thing of the hostess’s “broken nose” (295). That Mrs Brook may be Maisie grown up (and that novel might have been called How Maisie Knows if James had been interested in a mimetic psychology) may be seen in precisely the self-referential (and therefore ethical as action) status of performance as knowing: “I see now I must have known a lot as a child” (74). The analogical structure of meaning (in Quine’s terms, not “a=b” but “a is to b as c is to d”) shifts the performative into precisely the periperformative, towards a pure iconicity of voice:

Vanderbank hesitated. “Do you smoke with Mr Longdon?”

“Immensely. But what has that to do with it?”

“Everything, everything.” He spoke with a faint ring of impatience. “I want you to do with me exactly as you do with him.”

“Ah, that’s soon said!” the girl replied in a peculiar tone. “How do you mean, to ‘do’?”

“Well then, to be. What shall I say?” Vanderbank pleasantly wondered while his foot kept up its position. ‘To feel’.”

Not “I do” but “to do”, not finite but infinitive, as “to know” is less transitive than intransitive; and all much ado, about noting.

15As responses to his failure in the theatre, the two novels, especially The Awkward Age, make explicit central relations that cluster round the notion of performance. The thematics of development and non-development enable the texts to create themselves as problematically autotelic objects as they go along (for example, the blue novel in The Awkward Age, which produces what Barthes calls, in historical discourse and “any discourse which lays claim to ‘realism’” the “(illusory) confusion of referent and signified which is, as we know, the hallmark of auto-referential discourses like the performative” [Barthes 1984 165]). The play on the dangers of reading obscene French novels left lying around the house to be “perhaps found among one’s relics. Charming literary remains!” (79) is complexified by its being a (non-illusory) confusion of signified and referent but also returning with much stronger symbolic force as the metaphor for Aggie’s wayward bottom and a metonymy of something with which her lover might penetrate her:

Yes she’s sitting on it (...) So that unless he pulls her off.”—“But what in the world,” Mrs Brook pursued, “is the book selected for such a position? I hope it’s not a very big one.”—“Oh, aren’t the books that are sat upon,” Mr Cashmore freely inquired, “as a matter of course the bad ones?” (304)

16—an exchange that had a sleuth in 1945 claim in an article to have found a misprint, since clearly “big” was a mistake for “bad” (“The size of the volume does not matter, but its badness matters greatly.” Havens 497)—a reading which would deprive queer theory of one of its prime purchases in the text. The dialectical irony of the performative anchoring of the self-reference is its ethical supersession; this is also what makes a rereading of the novels a significantly more ethically focussed experience than a first reading: “She had sunk down upon the bench almost with a sense of adventure, yet not too fluttered to wonder if it wouldn’t have been happy to bring a book; the charm of which, precisely, would have been in feeling everything about her too beautiful to let her read” (158). Too beautiful for the book, except that the (ethical) beauty fades, the ethical text remains. As Mrs Brook asks her son about a received invitation: “But if you wrote –’ ‘It comes to the same thing? Does it?” (54)

17Crucially, in The Awkward Age the virtual or ghostly presence of the ethical self as signified or as referent (“What is The Awkward Age about?” asks Todorov, who seems not to have reread the novel) splits the signifying process of the text between an objectlessness constatively defined as a function of memory (i.e. adulthood refers to the dead Lady Julia and produces analogy as a ghost of meaning more ontologically reified than in The Turn of the Screw) or else performatively defined through the operations of dialogue as (mere) analogues of voice, and the extreme inflexions of tone and idiom as a cultural sign of and performance of the natural voice: signification here would be what Barthes calls “the dialectical movement which resolves the contradiction between cultural man and natural man” (Barthes 1982 21). (Susan Mizruchi, in the context of James’s interest in sociological theory, uses the term, coined by Richard Brown, of ‘dialectical ironist’: it seems quite appropriate to the performative ontologies of the dialogue in the novel [Mizruchi 123]). Nanda’s fragmented metonymy of a forename (and, unlike her white foil Aggie, she is never described in the novel) is a “coercive charm” indicating the recursive empty position of the listener, the ethical ear constantly deferred from and signified by the direct speech, the prodigious “talk” Longdon can only respond to silently by a “sort of suspended eloquence” (32). In the same way as listening, in Barthes’ account in “L’écoute”, develops paleontologically from the discernment of danger to the rhythmic discrimination of meaning, so Maisie

had a new feeling, the feeling of danger; on which a new remedy rose to meet it, the idea of an inner self or, in other words, of concealment. She puzzled out with imperfect signs, but with a prodigious spirit, that she had been a centre of hatred and a messenger of insult (...) (25)

18This dialectical relation across the processes of development and non-development of the absent (concealed) other and the present other (the dead and the listener) clearly opens up the question of the relation between the notion of object in the text and that of objects “in” the unconscious (melancholically or otherwise. Where “is” the unconscious on a theatre stage if not in the relation to the object-world of the stage? Writing becomes a form of listening, so that when Nanda says of he attachment to Mr Longdon, “It isn’t his talking—it’s his listening” (166), we can understand one as a metaphor for the other (in the same way as “the things you speak of depend on other people” [175]) since the narrative is an intermittently embodied and animated symbolic system more illusionary than the stage; we no longer have the distraction of real actors not really listening to each other except insofar as they recognize citations.

19How then does writing “come to the same thing” no matter the agent? To what extent does Ricœur’s phenomenology of metaphor, the dramatized relation of reference and performance, allow us to rethink narrative as iconic, to think the text as an intentional object, as Peirce claimed, mutatis mutandis, for “iconic” metaphor? In what sense could writing be read as a metaphor of speech? If Maisie’s doll Lisette, the singular self as transitional object, enlightens her with questions which “reproduced the effect of her own upon those for whom she sat in the very darkness of Lisette”, it is a knowledge which merely exacerbated the “coercive charm” of a mimickry of her mother that reinforces her “shame.” In this transactional space both an ethical and an aesthetic motive operate, both a denotation of essence and a connotation of relation, playing out chiastically through the un-clarity of those very processes “framed” affectively by shame, as the more syntactically congenial but epistemologically troubling connotation of essence and denotation of relation: “She mimicked her mother’s sharpness, but was rather ashamed afterwards, though as to whether of the sharpness or of the mimicry was not quite clear” (37). The play of narrative modalities carries more than one truth. That lack of clarity makes what she knew, new; coercion becomes the very sign and praxis of artistic freedom, and ultimately of literariness itself.

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Adrian HARDING, « Awkward Realism: Objects of Coercion in What Maisie Knew & The Awkward Age »E-rea [En ligne], 5.1 | 2007, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2007, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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