The Golden Bowl

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The Golden Bowl
First UK edition
AuthorHenry James
CountryUnited States
PublisherScribner (US)
Methuen (UK)
Publication date
10 November 1904
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)
PagesVol. 1, 412 pp; Vol. 2, 377pp (US)

The Golden Bowl is a 1904 novel by Henry James. Set in England, this complex, intense study of marriage and adultery completes what some critics have called the "major phase" of James's career. The Golden Bowl explores the tangle of interrelationships between a father and daughter and their respective spouses. The novel focuses deeply and almost exclusively on the consciousness of the central characters, with sometimes obsessive detail but also with powerful insight.

Plot summary[edit]

Prince Amerigo, an impoverished but charismatic Italian nobleman, is in London for his marriage to Maggie Verver, only child of the widower Adam Verver, the fabulously wealthy American financier and art collector. While there, he re-encounters Charlotte Stant, another young American and a former mistress from his days in Rome; they had met in Mrs. Assingham's drawing room. Charlotte is not wealthy, which is one reason they did not marry. Although Maggie and Charlotte have been dear friends since childhood, Maggie does not know of Charlotte's and Amerigo's past relationship. Charlotte and Amerigo go shopping together for a wedding present for Maggie. They find a curiosity shop where the shopkeeper offers them an antique gilded crystal bowl. Charlotte lacks the money to buy the bowl and the Prince declines to purchase it, as he suspects it contains a hidden flaw.

After Maggie has married, afraid that her father has become lonely, as they had been close for years, she persuades him to propose to Charlotte, who accepts Adam's proposal. Soon after the wedding, Charlotte and Amerigo are thrown together, because their respective spouses seem more interested in their father-daughter relationship than in their marriages. Amerigo and Charlotte kiss and later spend a day together visiting a cathedral and an inn but whether or not they have sex remains ambiguous.

Maggie begins to suspect the pair. She happens to go to the same shop and buys the golden bowl they had rejected. Regretting the high price he has charged her, the shopkeeper visits Maggie and confesses to overcharging. At her home, he sees photographs of Amerigo and Charlotte. He tells Maggie of the pair's shopping trip on the eve of her marriage and their intimate conversation in his shop. (They had spoken Italian, but he understands the language.)

Maggie confronts Amerigo. She begins a secret campaign to separate him and Charlotte while never revealing their affair to her father. Also concealing her knowledge from Charlotte and denying any change to their friendship, she gradually persuades her father to return to America with his wife. After previously regarding Maggie as a naïve, immature American, the Prince seems impressed by his wife's delicate diplomacy. The novel ends with Adam and Charlotte Verver about to depart for the United States. Amerigo says he can "see nothing but" Maggie and embraces her.

Main characters[edit]

  • Maggie Verver
  • Prince Amerigo
  • Charlotte Stant
  • Adam Verver
  • Fanny Assingham
  • Colonel Robert Assingham

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

The Golden Bowl's intense focus on its four main characters gives the novel both its tremendous power and its peculiar feeling of claustrophobia.[1] Henry James himself had a high regard for his last work, describing it to his American publisher as "distinctly the most done of my productions ― the most composed and constructed and completed...I hold the thing the solidest, as yet, of all my fictions."[2]

Critics consign The Golden Bowl to James's "Old Pretender" phase of writing, which characterises his final novels.[1] Although the narrative is very focused compared to his earlier works, with minimal characters, the writing is complex and elaborate. Gore Vidal attributed this verbosity in part to James's habit at the time of dictating his novels to stenographers rather than typing the manuscript himself. Vidal thought the style of The Golden Bowl, as well as The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Ambassadors (1903), mimicked James's own rhetorical manner, which was "endlessly complex, humorous, unexpected - euphemistic where most people are direct and suddenly precise where avoidance or ellipsis is usual..."[3]

Robert McCrum included the novel in The Guardian's list of 100 Best Novels, describing it as an "amazing, labyrinthine, terrifying and often claustrophobic narrative."[1] Author Colm Toibin called The Golden Bowl Henry James's best work, in part because James "stripped down" the number of characters to four.[4] He describes James's style of expressing consciousness as "a system of clauses, sub-clauses, modifications, qualifications and in some cases ruminations", which anticipates the later styles of stream of consciousness writing by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.[4] John Banville also compared James's modernist stream of consciousness technique, which characterises The Golden Bowl, to James Joyce, summarising it as "a style designed to catch, with immense, with fiendish, subtlety, and in sentences of labyrinthine intricacy, the very texture of conscious life."[5]

The author Rebecca West, on the other hand, said of it that "winter had fallen on [James'] genius in The Golden Bowl."[citation needed] Critics have noted the overbearing symbolism of the golden bowl, which is eventually broken in a scene that may not be fully effective.[citation needed]

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Golden Bowl 32nd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Some critics believe that The Golden Bowl was an inspiration for Iris Murdoch, a known fan of James, and, in particular, her novel A Severed Head.[citation needed]

The title is taken from Ecclesiastes 12: "Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity."

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

In 1972, the BBC produced a six-hour televised version that was highly praised,[6] with a screenplay by Jack Pulman, Gayle Hunnicutt as Charlotte, Barry Morse as Adam Verver, Jill Townsend as Maggie, Daniel Massey as the Prince, and Cyril Cusack as Bob Assingham, ingeniously presented as the narrator, commenting on the development of the story very much in the style of Henry James. This version, presented on Masterpiece Theatre, was more faithful to the book than the later Merchant-Ivory film in the U.S.

In 2000, The Golden Bowl was filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions, directed by James Ivory, and starred Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Northam. In some ways Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's adaptation differs from James's novel. In the book, Charlotte is a calculating, amoral character who manipulates and manages those around her with a glance or a smile; however, in the movie, Charlotte appears to suffer from some mental disorder, exhibiting symptoms of paranoia and obsessive love.

Critical editions[edit]

Henry James, The Golden Bowl (Wordsworth Classics, 2000), ed. Nicola Bradbury, ISBN 978-1840224320


  1. ^ a b c Robert McCrum (26 May 2014). "The 100 best novels: No 36 - The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904)". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  2. ^ Gore Vidal (1987). Return to 'The Golden Bowl'. Penguin Books. p. 11.
  3. ^ Gore Vidal (1987). Return to 'The Golden Bowl'. Penguin Books. p. 9.
  4. ^ a b Wall Street Journal (12 May 2015). WSJ Book Club: Colm Tóibín on "The Golden Bowl". Archived from the original on 21 December 2021. Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  5. ^ John Banville (7 October 2017). "John Banville: Novels were never the same after Henry James". The Irish Times. Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  6. ^ "TV View - 'THE GOLDEN BOWL' DRAMATIZATION STILL SHINES". The New York Times. 3 May 1981.


  • The Novels of Henry James by Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983) ISBN 0-8044-2959-6
  • The Novels of Henry James by Oscar Cargill (New York: Macmillan Co., 1961)
  • Gibson, Suzie. "Love's Negative Dialectic in Henry James's 'The Golden Bowl'", Philosophy and Literature, 39.1, 1–14, 2015.

External links[edit]