Document Type


Date of Award



Henry James, Criticism and interpretation, American literature, 19th century

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

John V. Hagopian

Second Advisor

Mario A. DiCesare

Third Advisor

William B. Stein


My own initial bemused reaction to the language of Henry James I can place in a classroom in 1960 where, with a class of fellow English majors—-old hands, all of us, at Faulkner and Joyce–I was, in the first chapters of The Wings of the Dove, as “awfully at sea” as Merton Densher was when he first met Kate Croy. A timid question drew from the professor probably the best advice that can be given to a novice at reading James: “You can't just skim James, you know; you have to read every word.” Later, teaching The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers, I added another terse axiom——“Trust only the dialogue” —and, as axioms go, these two seem to hold up: “Read every word; trust only the dialogue.” The genesis of this study may thus be seen as a conflation of the two axioms to demonstrate how most respectfully and rightly to read the works of Henry James. What this conflation has led to for me is the sort of “microscopic criticism” I find myself practicing in this close examination of Jamesean dialogue.


The implicit conclusion I hope will be drawn from my study of Jamesan dialogue is that by the time of The Wings of the Dove, dialogue had become not only James’s major technical concern, but also the principal means by which he defined human reality. By his dialogues, Austin Warren beautifully sums up, “James commits himself: he really believes in the all but supreme importance of personal relationships; and because they are so important, the proper interpretation of them becomes important" (147). James, apparently, came to the ultimate conclusion that the meaning of human beings and events depends on how they are formulated in language–not so much by how an author formulates experience in language (for all writers do that), but how his characters do.