Updated: Oct 19, 2022
The Figure in the Carpet (1896) by Henry James is one of a number of stories James wrote in his later years which deal with issues of authorship, writing, and literary reputation. The tale has baffled critics ever since it first appeared. Some commentators claim that it’s a satire of literary criticism, others that it’s no more than a literary joke, and just a few readers claim that it is a profound exploration of literary hermeneutics.
‘The Figure in the Carpet’ has become a short-hand or idiom for the ‘key’ to understanding a writer’s work. And yet the story in which the idiom was born, The Figure in the Carpet, refuses to open itself up to easy interpretations or analysis. Neither we nor Henry James’s narrator learn the secret, the ‘figure in the carpet’.
A brief summary of James’s story. An unnamed narrator reviews the latest novel by the author Hugh Vereker, and congratulates himself on having divined the true meaning of Vereker’s book. But at a party, he overhears Vereker telling the other guests that the narrator’s review was ‘the usual twaddle’. Vereker discovers the narrator heard him belittling his review, he appease him by telling him that nobody has managed to guess the true meaning of his work, but that there is an idea present in all of his novels. It is a complex woven figure in a Persian carpet, which provides the ‘secret’ or ‘key’ to understanding all of his work.
Spurred on by this, the narrator sets out to discover what ‘the figure in the carpet’ really is that will unlock the secrets of Vereker’s work.
In the end, they are left scratching their heads over the solution to this mystery of ‘the figure in the carpet’.
Work and Love
There are many instances in The Figure in the Carpet where the characters regard their writing lives as more important than their love lives. George Corvick who is a literary critic who asks the unnamed narrator to write a review of Hugh Vereker's recent novel, is anxious and eager to marry Gwendolen Erme, aspiring young novelist. This takes places at the beginning of the story where Gwendolen's mother disapproves it. They supposedly continue their engagement but when Corvick decides to go to India, he tells the unnamed narrator that he is "not a bit engaged to her, you know!" Rather than stay in England with Gwendolen, Corvick decides to go to India where he hopes he will discover the mystery of Hugh Vereker's "general intention." He appears to choose his literary work over Gwendolen's love.
The unnamed narrator experiences a loss of interest in Vereker's books. He comes home to London after the party at Lady Jane's and buys all the books by Vereker that he can find. He reads them all but still cannot decipher the mysterious "general intention" of Vereker's work. His lack of success causes him to reject the work and Vereker. He claims he is bored with the work and the man. The narrator's literary focus overshadows his positive feelings for Vereker. He lets his professional focus rule his emotional life.
The narrator's admiration of Gwendolen grows while Corvick is in India. He sees how passionate she is about her literary work. The narrator admires the passion she feels for her work. His interest takes a more selfish turn however when he believes he might have to marry Gwendolen to discover the secret of Vereker's "general intention." He would marry her only for access to the knowledge she has from Corvick. The narrator's desire for knowledge of Vereker's "general intention" motivates the selfishness that leads him to query Deane.
Truth or Falsehood
The unnamed narrator not only tells the story of The Figure in the Carpet but also participates in it. While George Corvick and Gwendolen Erme claim to know the mystery of the undiscovered "general intention" in Hugh Vereker's work, the narrator and the reader never know. The narrator is more interested in the convoluted paths the characters follow to unsatisfying conclusions than the actual answer to the mystery.
The relationships among the characters in The Figure in the Carpet are ambiguous. The narrator reveals their internal thoughts and feelings, but since he is a participant and not an uninvolved observer, his representations of the characters are subjective. This subjectivity raises the question of whether the characters' personalities and relationships might be different from what the narrator presents. It is also possible that Corvick never told Gwendolen the mystery of Vereker's "general intention" even though Gwendolen tells the narrator she knows what it is. If Gwendolen knew the answer to the mystery, she could have passed this knowledge on to her second husband Drayton Deane. According to the narrator, Deane claims that he knows nothing about the mysterious "general intention." Since the question remains unanswered, the truth or falsehood of the relationships among the characters presented by the narrator is open to interpretation.
The General Intention
All the characters in The Figure in the Carpet are writers. Hugh Vereker is an established novelist. The unnamed narrator, George Corvick, and Drayton Deane are literary critics while Gwendolen Erme is an aspiring novelist. The characters' mission is to discover the "general intention" of Vereker's work. The narrator wants Vereker to give him a clue as to the intention. He asks, "Is it something in the style or something in the thought? An element of form or an element of feeling?" He continues to wonder if "it's some idea ABOUT life, some sort of philosophy" or "some kind of game you're up to with your style, something you're after in the language." Vereker becomes bored with these queries, and the narrator realizes that he has not come close to understanding what Vereker's "general intention" might be. This failure leads the narrator to ask a fundamental question of Vereker. He asks, "Should you be able, pen in hand, to state it clearly yourself—to name it, phrase it, formulate it?" Vereker replies passionately, "if I were only, pen in hand, one of YOU chaps!" With this statement Vereker draws a line between himself as an author and the critics who read his work. The tone of Vereker's reply is sarcastic because there is a sense that he believes the work of the critic is far less important than his work. It is not his job to verbalize his "general intention." This belief leads to the question of whether an author's "general intention" should be so
It is generally agreed that The Figure in the Carpet is one of James’s more baffling stories. We certainly would like to know what ‘secrets’ Vereker has implanted in his work, including the narrator.
The tale can be view as a critique of literary criticism since that is the narrator’s occupation. According to him Vereker’s work can be considered as advancing his own reputation as a critic, and he views his friend Corvick and the latecomer Drayton Deane as rivals.
In this tale, James is taking revenge on lazy literary critics who are not willing to study an author’s work in depth, but are only interested in advancing their own celebrity and careers. The narrator focus all his attention on extracting the ‘secret’ from other people, instead of doing the work himself. At the end of the story he is no wiser, and the insinuation of this reading is that the literary joke is on him.
Vereker makes a persuasive claim for the hidden meaning in his work yet he refuses to reveal it. The remainder of the story is focused on the narrator’s futile search for an answer. This reading of the story sees the narrator as a gullible dupe.
First we might observe that Vereker’s claim is itself a fictional construct. There is no way a reader can know if it is true or not because we have no examples of Vereker’s work to form an opinion. Covington’s subsequent claim to have discovered the secret is also part of the fiction. His word also cannot be checked even though Vereker’s apparent confirmation of Covington’s claim. The fact that two fictional characters might agree on the existence of a ‘secret meaning’ does not mean that such a meaning exists.
Those who wish to see the story as a literary joke might also observe that the very three people who claim to know the answer to the mystery (Vereker, Covington, and Gwendolen) all die in rapid succession when the narrator believes he will learn the secret from them. In the end he is left into the void and pulling unfortunate Drayton Deane into his belief in the mystery.
It is also possible to take the fictional claims made in the story at face value. Vereker claims his work has an ‘exquisite scheme’, but refuses to reveal it; and Covington claims to have discovered the secret, but dies before explaining what it is.
If this is true then the story is converted into a psychological study focusing on Narrator’s self-regard and egotism, which blinds him to the nature of events and the people with whom he is concerned.
Vereker warns him not to go off in pursuit of the ‘buried treasure’ in his work – “Give it up, give it up!” – to which the narrator responds by accusing him of being ‘a man of unstable moods’. Viewing the narrator’s comments carefully, he reveals himself as a confused character and encourages self-congratulation.
Few of James’s stories are short by modern standards also he referred to them tales and not stories. Short fictions are generally judged by the same criteria as most stories by the authors such as Edgar Allen Poe to Maupassant, Chekhov, Joyce, and Woolf.
Poe suggested that a short story is something that can be read at one sitting, and that all its interest is focused onto a single issue. To these unities, unity of theme, time, imagery, place, character are included too. In other words, short stories are at their best when they are as concentrated and unified as possible.
It could be argued that The Figure in the Carpet certainly focuses attention on one issue which is the pursuit of a mystery and has one principal character, the narrator. But these features are overwhelmed by excess of incident. The story contains two marriages and no less than four deaths, on which the narrative depends and is lot for even a short tale to contain.
It also has a singular lack of geographic unity. The story moves from London to Bombay, then on to Munich, Rapallo, and Merano then returning to London. It is certainly a mystery, but not a carefully unified whole.