Term Paper: Aestheticism Artistic Appreciation and Taste in James Spoils of Poynton

Pages: 8 (2590 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 6  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Art  (general)  ·  Buy This Paper

James Spoils

People, Things, and Ethics: Perspectives on Collection and Control in Henry James' the Spoils of Poynton

Though not long in words or plot complexity, Henry James' novel the Spoils of Poynton addresses far-reaching and intricately interwoven issues of perception and the human drive to manipulate. The relationship between ethics and aesthetics becomes so pronounced and yet so muddied -- the line between these two vast bodies of human thought blurring all but entirely at times -- that something as straightforward if inexplicable as artistic appreciation and matters of taste becomes as fraught as any life-and-death problem. Mrs. Gereth, her son Owen, his fiancee and eventual wife Mona Brigstock, and the fetching yet distant Fleda Vetch are the primary figures of the novel's drama, and each offers and explicitly rendered and entirely unique perspective on issues of aesthetics and ethics and how these two merge and interrelate. Mrs. Gereth has spent her life collecting art and displaying it at Poynton, her pieces making up the literal "spoils" of the title; the novel finds her attempting to maintain her grasp on this collection while Owen especially and Mona less so threaten its cohesion with their own aesthetic sensibilities (or lack thereof).

Fleda Vetch is caught in the middle, both in terms of plot and perspective, and yet James no more sides with her perspective than he does with any other, in terms of aesthetic or artistic "goodness." Nor are Mrs. Gereth and her son (and son's fiancee) placed at polar opposites of opinion and outlook in terms of aesthetics or ethics. The outward machinations of James' plot are used to reveal deeply layered attitudes towards art and what it means to develop an artistic appreciation and aesthetic sensibility, with Mrs. Gereth's desire for control over her art extending to her son -- perhaps because of her love for her art, and perhaps because this is simply how she loves -- while Owen's rather dull rebellion against his mother is paired not to an opposite yet impassioned sensibility but rather to a seeming lack of artistic appreciation. Fleda's position is most complex and most shifting, but ultimately her attachment to ideas of what could be override her ability to appreciate what is set in front of her, and this seems to inform her artistic appreciation as much as it does her ethical perspective, just as it does for the other characters in the novel. Though some characters appear at times to be rendered two-dimensionally, all of James' characters in Spoils of Poynton are wonderfully rich and illustrate in a highly detailed fashion how intimately aesthetic sensibility and ethical perspectives are related for those that deal with "things," and how both people and things might end up discarded by those who deal with "ideas."

Art for Heart's Sake

For almost everyone -- perhaps truly everyone -- objects are most often seen and dealt with as "things." The difference is more than semantic; Bill Brown puts the distinction thusly in his essay "Thing Theory": "although objects typically arrest a poet's attention, and although the object was what was asked to join the dance in philosophy, things may still lurk in the shadows of the ballroom and continue to lurk there after the subject and object have done their thing, long after the party is over" (p. 4). Objects are the physical artifacts that might capture the attention of an author -- or a character -- that is, while things represent all those objects embody andhow they related toi the lives of those they encounter. A car is just an object when thought of as metal and mechanical parts, but as a mode of conveyance, a component of efficiency (or inefficiency, depending on perspective), etc., it is very much a "thing" with many complex, lingering, and often unintended effects. While most objects take on this quality of "thingness" for most people that encounter these objects, for some people things can take on an extreme and absolute power -- or perhaps it could be said that for some people, everything becomes and is dealt with as a thing, whether object, person or idea.

Mrs. Gereth is such a person. For her, artistic appreciation -- or what she deems to be artistic appreciation -- is not only a perspective to bring to analyses of those things that are overtly subjective, individual, and artistic, but is the way to approach life and the people that populate it. The opening paragraph of the novel makes this abundantly and unquestionably clear, describing Mrs. Gereth's irritation as she departs a home in which she is a guest for a solitary walk to church, "passing through corridors and observing imbecilities of decoration, the aesthetic misery of the big commodious house, she felt a return of the tide of last night's irritation, a renewal of everything she could secretly suffer from ugliness and stupidity. Why did she consent to such contacts? why did she so rashly expose herself?" (Ch. I, par. 1). The "ugliness" and aesthetic "imbecilities" Mrs. Gereth sees are not only distasteful to her sense of artistic appreciation, but make her question the company she is keeping and thus the moral/ethical rectitude of her friends and current hosts. Beset by a world of things in which she has no control, Mrs. Gereth is clearly upset (though archly so) and attempts to exert control through, in the words of one critic, her "lofty vulgarity" and "spiritual barbarism" (Gargano, p. 652). This is precisely the internal state she occupies throughout the novel; she is seen in her home where she has amassed a large collection of art displayed in the best of taste and in which she has reigned over not only objects but also her son Owen as "things" to be manipulated, but she is in the process of losing these things as they escape her control. She cannot make, acquire, or preserve beauty as she was once able to, and any sense of recognizable ethicality is all but destroyed in favor of this overriding drive for aesthetic control.

That people are things to Mrs. Gereth just as her collection of art is made up of things -- that people are "thingified," if the reader will allow this continued distinction of Brown's "things" and "objects," as the term becomes more appropriate than "objectified" in context -- is seen in more than just the rather obvious subtext of passages such as the one quoted above. It is also an explicit element of the novel's plot, as it is Mrs. Gereth's attempt to manipulate people as she does her art collection that leads to many of the conflicts in the novel, and arguably to all of them. She attempts to direct her son's marriage not only through manipulating him but also by manipulating Fleda, who secretly (and then not so secretly) loves Owen and whom Owen comes to love at some point as well. Her motives have nothing to do with love, however, but are consumed wither desire to keep Poynton as she has curated it over the years. Mrs. Gereth's concern, in other words, are for her thing -- her things, it should be emphasized -- which encompasses (in her mind) everything and everyone she encounters. This results in this artistically inclined matriarch becoming one of James' "portrayals of 'inhuman isolation'," according to John C. Broderick, and "the rupture between mother and son clarifies the imagery of separation" (p. 305).

Interestingly, Brown notes that it is when "things" become broken that we tend to recognize and identify them as "objects" (p. 6). It is when the car breaks down, for example, that its actual existence as metal and mechanical parts is recognized, and thus only when the qualities that made it a "thing" are disrupted or eradicated does the car become recognizable as an object. This becomes quite relevant when examining Mrs. Gereth's relationships with the other characters of the novel, most especially her son Owen. It is when Owen ceases to be under her control -- and when this lack of control threatens her control over her art collection and the "spoils of Poynton" -- that she seems to truly recognize that Owen is an "object" in and of himself. She still attempts to manipulate and direct Owen's actions, and is both surprised and dismayed when her manipulations fail, yet she recognizes the possibility of such failure and such lack of control more keenly in the latter portions of the novel. In one of her last desperate attempts to see Fleda and Owen wed, Mrs. Gereth is described in terms that both exemplify the "art" of her character and her actions along with the drastically contrasted desperateness of her situation: "She looked round the room as if, in feverish haste, for a mantle to catch up; she bustled to the window as if to spy out a cab" (Ch. XVIII, par. 16). Her apparent imminent need to faint or flee is artifice, meant equally to achieve a desired aesthetic effect and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Aestheticism Artistic Appreciation and Taste in James Spoils of Poynton.  (2013, May 9).  Retrieved July 17, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/aestheticism-artistic-appreciation/1388479

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"Aestheticism Artistic Appreciation and Taste in James Spoils of Poynton."  Essaytown.com.  May 9, 2013.  Accessed July 17, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/aestheticism-artistic-appreciation/1388479.