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English essay on the Character of Maisie in ‘What Maisie Knew’


Task: Consider the novel - WHAT MAISIE KNEW - by Henry James and write an English essay on the topic below:
‘Maisie feels she to be a kind of blank on to which all the grown-ups more or less casually and tenderly load bits and pieces of their plots’ (Adrian Poole, Henry James, Brighton: Harvester, 1991, p. 99).

Discuss this proposition in relation to the formal properties of James's novel (that is, plot, character, language etc).
Your answer must make detailed reference to the novel (i.e. you must give thematic and narrative examples and provide their detailed close reading and critical analysis) and use at least three (3) relevant secondary sources to support and develop a cogent, well-argued answer to the question.


“Maisie feels herself to be a kind of blank on to which all the grown-ups more or less casually and tenderly load bits and pieces of their plots” The writings of Henry James in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are best known for the transitional style that connected literary realism to literary modernism (Preserve and Adleman 10).

He wrote his novel ‘What Maisie Knew’ in 1897. The novel tells the story of a young protagonist, Maisie whose parents Beale and Ida are divorced and the child’s custody is granted to both the parents. As a result of the arrangement, Maisie must live half a year with one of her parents and the other half with another. Her character is that of a young child who lacks parental care, love, and warmth from her biological parents who were, most of the time, absent from her life even when she was physically living with them. This lack of affection from her real parents is to some extent compensated by the characters of the Governesses, Miss Overmore and Mrs.Wix as well as Sir Claude, Maisie’s stepfather. Adrian Poole in his work on Henry James makes the above-quoted statement regarding the novel and in particular about Maisie.

Maisie’s position in the world, in society, and her family is made clear in the introduction of the novel itself where the author sets the backdrop for the novel. It says, “She was divided into two and the portions tossed impartially to the disputants." (The Project Gutenberg 3) Maisie here has been described as an object that can be “divided” and her “portions tossed impartially” between her parents. There is no sentimentality in their treatment of the child and thus, this description highlights the modern condition of living. Rapid urbanization, industrialization, growth in science and technology marked the modern era. These developments led to the markets being flooded with commercial products, which gave rise to consumerism and commodity fetishism. This, in turn, made people more estranged from one another as people sought more materialistic pleasures. The increasingly rapid changes left people disoriented and lost which was a hallmark of modernity and this is reflected in James’ novel as well. The void that was created due to this disorientation and loss of human connection fed the consumer culture that can be witnessed in the novel as an undeniable undercurrent. This condition is prevalent not just in the case of Maisie and her parents but also in Ida and Beale's relationship between themselves and also with their respective later partners (Freedman6).James makes use of urban settings in much of his novels and this novel is set in a rapidly changing urban setting of England. Having parents who have been engulfed by the cultures of such an age, the question of Maisie’s reliable upbringing is an important theme in the novel. This theme is directly related to one of James’ often used and prominent themes, the theme of innocence versus the corruption and unreliability of the adult society. The novel also highlights the profanity and vanity of modern society in general and English society in particular.

The novel, which is written through Maisie’s perspective has this theme running as the backbone of the novel. Maisie grows up in a broken household and the parental duties of guiding her, teaching her, and taking care of her are all relegated to her nanny and governesses. The environment that she grows up in is one filled with quarrels, anger, lies, deception, insults, etc. (Henriques Britto3). The distinction between right and wrong or morally sound and unfit actions has not been made clear to her. Maisie is six years of age and it is an age where a child learns any lesson that can be either voluntarily or involuntarily instilled in the child. It is also an age for the development of the emotional intelligence of the child and this concept is in alignment with the above statement about Maisie being a blank slate. All the characters in the novel and how they behave and present themselves in front of her directly influence the building of her emotional intelligence. In other words, the actions of the two parents and the people around them had both a positive and a negative impact on Maisie and her personal development. This impact is visible in the case of an episode with her first governess Moodle while living with her father.

After her parent’s divorce, Maisie was made to believe that her father had given up and changed a lot for her sake and she should never forget that. Her father insisted that Maisie should realize all these and the reinforcement of that belief was done by Moodle through comments like, “Your papa wishes you never to forget, you know, that he has been dreadfully put about.” (The Project Gutenberg 8). The father figure represented in the novel was rather a horrible one as there was no discretion in his mannerism and the way in which he spoke in front of his child. He does not hide his hatred towards his wife and does not hesitate to call her with insulting names like “nasty horrid pig” in front of Maisie disregarding the kind of influence his behaviour would have on her and her mother is also of similar nature. Maisie’s experience of being abandoned and neglected deeply affects her unconscious psyche when she was younger. She shows outward manifestation of this trauma in one particular incident while she was living with her mother. Maisie owns a doll named Lisette and the manner, in which Maisie treats her doll is reflective of her mother’s actions towards her: “Her Ladyship’s duty took at times the form of not seeing her child for day” (The Project Gutenberg 65). Ida and Beale both use their daughter who is only a child to annoy one another. All throughout her childhood, Maisie finds herself, in James’ words, “practically disowned, rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis-ball or a shuttlecock.” (James and Blackmur 140). The experience that she goes through, leaves her with traumas which the author represents symbolicallyas her world being “phantasmagoric”with “strange shadows dancing on the sheets” (The Project Gutenberg 7), in the very beginning of chapter one.The shadows dancing on the sheets here are symbols for all the people in her life playing (not playing) some kind of role or other.

Apart from her parents, the four other major characters in Maisie’s life have a noticeable influence on her. Firstly, the character of her nurse Moodle is the one Maisie can depend upon at the beginning of the novel. To Maisie, who felt abandoned by her parents, Moodle acted like the only support and teacher. This is why all her curious questions are directed to Moodle and in whom Maisie has absolute faith and trusts the answers that she gives. This is also the reason why the comment made by Moodle that has been quoted above is convincing to her. Maisie is always afraid that Moodle also might leave her just like how her parents abandoned her. Although this has not been explicitly mentioned in the novel but can be confirmed from the incident in the park, where Maisie keeps coming back from where she would be playing from time to time to check whether Moodle was still where she was supposed to be.

Maisie, as a little child, grows quickly fond of her Governesses and is attached to them who give her some care. Maisie instantly grows fond of Miss Overmore, her governess when she goes to live with her mother because she is pretty. This is reflective of her innocence as a child even when she is amid selfish and materialistic adults and she is aware (if not fully) of the situation she is in. It is her virtue and heightened sense of morality even as a child that keeps her from going astray, even as she lives among corrupted adults with no sense of discretion. The ambiguous nature of Miss Overmore and her father's relationship, in the beginning, leaves Maisie perplexed and bitter, and hated the feeling of being kept in the dark. Later on, she was ready to accept their marriage thinking that they were getting married to be together with her.She failed to understand the sly nature of the adults who use her as a reason to validate their actions. Maisie’s other governess Mrs. Wix is someone who fulfills the role of a parent for Maisie to some extent and guides Maisie, although it was quite limited.

Another character that comes closest to a parent-like figure is that of Ida's second husband Sir Claude. The character of Sir Claude is somewhat of an androgynous figure as stated by Patricia Hogan Sloan in her examination of his character (Sloan5). He refers to himself as a “grandmother”who is fond of children, in his conversation with Ida. Keeping up to his self-proclamation he does prove himself to be a loving and caring step-father asMaisie is left in his care when her biological parents abandoned her for one reason or another. Maisie’s trauma of being abandoned plays out towards the end of the novel when she decides to live with Mrs. Wix instead of the newly married couple. Her experience with her married parents leaves quite a bad impression on the little girl both consciously and unconsciously which will ultimately lead her to decide to not go with Sir Claude and Miss Overmore.

“She was in short introduced to life with a liberality in which the selfishness of others found its account, and there was nothing to avert the sacrifice but the modesty of her youth.” (The Project Gutenberg 7). This line from the novel is quite adequate to represent the life and situation that Maisie lives. None of the adults prove themselves as sensible as all of them are rather "selfish", as the author puts it. They would rather speak about and do things that please them disregarding the physical and psychological age of the child and without giving any thought about whether the child can handle such matters of the adult. Examples of such instances can be found throughout the novel, like when her parents remarry and her two governesses fight for one man or when her step-father and step-mother start an affair. She, a child, has to be her own "judge and jury" of all these characters and their actions as Colodeeva puts it in her work ‘The Masquerade of Social Selves in What Maisie Knew by Henry James’ (Colodeeva 74).

How Maisie reacts with whatever is in front of her and whether she inculcates the behaviors and ideals of the people around her or not is something to be observed in the novel. In the novel, Maisie is seen to have a higher sense of morality in comparison to all the other characters, except, perhaps, Mrs. Wix. Mrs. Wix is the only character who asserts morality and a moral sense of being until the very end. She is the only one who opposes Maisie being taken by the new couple, Sir Claude and Miss Overmore when they get married. Maisie, although fond of both Sir Claude and Miss Overmore also chooses to stay with Mrs. Wix who she feels is like the only constant existence in her life. At the end of the novel, it may be difficult to point out whether Maisie’s exposure to the corrupt adult world at its worst was able to corrupt Maisie’s being as she can be seen as innocent as ever but more discerning.However, one can say that the decisions that Maisie takes are a result of all the influences that she has had since her childhood.

Work Cited
Colodeeva, Liliana. “The Masquerade of Social Selves in What Maisie Knew by Henry James.”, 2018, Maisie_Knew_by_Henry_James. Accessed 18 Mar. 2021.

Freedman, Jonathan. The Cambridge Companion to Henry James. Cambridge United Kingdom; New York, Cambridge University Press, 1998. Henriques Britto, Paulo. “What Maisie Knew: Translating James’s Late Style.” Research Gate, 1997,’s_Late_Style. Accessed 17 Mar. 2021. James, Henry, and R P Blackmur. The Art of the Novel, New York, London, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1934.

James, William. The Stream of Consciousness. Oxford University Press, 1965.

Preserve, Lehigh, and Susan Adleman. What Maisie Knew by Henry James: A Technical Analysis. , 1971.

Sloan, Patricia H. “Androgyne in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew.”, 2021, Accessed 18 Mar. 2021. The Project Gutenberg. What Maisie Knew, by Henry James. , 2004.


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