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Boswell, J. (2005). Missing what was true: Problems of seeing and knowing in Henry James's The wings of the dove. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 86(4):1161-1173.

(2005). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 86(4):1161-1173

Missing what was true: Problems of seeing and knowing in Henry James's The wings of the dove

Jill Boswell

The author examines a central theme in this late novel by Henry James in relation to current psychoanalytic ideas that link the Oedipus complex with the child's developing perception of reality (both psychic and external), specically through the experience of seeing and being seen. Britton visualises the oedipal triangle as a psychic structure through which the child may achieve recognition not only of its parents' sexual relationship, from which it is excluded, but also of itself being observed by one parent while the child is with the other. Thus, it both observes and is observed. The differing perspectives achieved—of subjectivity and objectivity— promote the perception of objective reality, as the world of relationships grows and becomes more complex. James captures with great subtlety and penetration the experience of three characters living out a symbolic oedipal relationship in which the truth is evaded or perverted. A young couple in love exploit the situation of a dying heiress whose vulnerability is intensified by her reluctance to acknowledge the truth about their relationship. At the same time, she shrinks from the gaze of others and consigns herself to isolation and ultimate despair. The author presents three significant scenes in which seeing and being seen are central to the development. In each, the dying woman is forced to face, if momentarily, her exclusion from the sexual relationship. Increasingly this connects with her approaching death—but also with the anguished recognition that the couple have cruelly befriended her only to betray her. It is suggested that James's late style and novelistic technique require the reader to tolerate confusion and uncertainty. As the perspective shifts from one protagonist to another, we ourselves are in danger of ‘missing what is true’ in this characteristic Jamesian scenario, where relationships are gradually perverted by manipulation, evasion and lies. In psychoanalytic theory, this would represent a failure to work through the oedipal situation, where the struggle of the child to face reality is met by a parental relationship that is too weak or too perverse to contain the pain and conflict.

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