The Ivory Tower

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This article is about the Henry James novel. For the metaphor for academia, see Ivory Tower. For other uses, see Ivory Tower (disambiguation).
The Ivory Tower
First US edition
Author Henry James
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Collins (UK)
Scribners (US)
Publication date
6 September 1917
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 348 pp

The Ivory Tower is an unfinished novel by Henry James, posthumously published in 1917. The novel is a brooding story of Gilded Age America. It centers on the riches earned by a pair of dying millionaires and ex-partners, Abel Gaw and Frank Betterman, and their possibly corrupting effect on the people around them.

Plot summary[edit]

Graham ("Gray") Fielder returns from Europe to the wealthy resort of Newport, Rhode Island, to see his dying uncle Frank Betterman. Rosanna Gaw, the daughter of Betterman's embittered ex-partner Abel Gaw, is also at Newport. She has succeeded in bringing about a partial reconciliation between the two elderly men.

Gaw and Betterman both die, and Fielder receives a large inheritance from his uncle. Gray is inexperienced at business, so he entrusts the management of the fortune to the unscrupulous Horton Vint. At this point the novel breaks off. From his extensive notes it appears that James intended Vint to betray Fielder's trust much as Kate Croy did with Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. Fielder would then magnanimously forgive Vint, but it's not certain if he would marry Rosanna, who may be in love with Gray.

Major themes[edit]

James meant this novel as an attack on the gigantic wealth of the Gilded Age plutocrats. He presents Abel Gaw with almost Gothic intensity as a predatory financier, "with his beak, which had pecked so many hearts out, visibly sharper than ever." James portrays Betterman, as his name suggests, in a slightly more favorable light if only because he has repented somewhat for his past financial sins.

The younger people are equally reprehensible, with the possible exceptions of Rosanna and Gray. "We're all unspeakably corrupt," admits Vint. Vint and his lover Cissy Foy are reminiscent of Amerigo and Charlotte in The Golden Bowl in their love of wealth and pleasure.

According to James' notes, Fielder eventually comes to recognize "the black and merciless things that are behind the great possessions" and how those possessions have been "so dishonored and stained and blackened at their very roots, that it seems...they carry their curse with them." Which is probably as definite a statement of the novel's import as can be found.

Critical evaluation[edit]

Even in its fragmentary state The Ivory Tower has received high, sometimes extravagant praise. Much of the praise, though, appears politically motivated. Critics happy with James' attack on excessive wealth and laissez-faire capitalism have been willing to overlook the very slow pace of the novel and the extreme density of its prose.[citation needed]

The negative case also quibbles with James' sometimes stilted, unnatural dialogue, and his unsubtle harping on Rosanna's overweight physique and tobacco addiction.[citation needed] No definite verdict can be reached on a novel left mostly incomplete. An interesting footnote is the large advance that Scribner's paid to James for the novel. He was a little suspicious of the money, with good reason. His friend Edith Wharton had secretly provided the cash.


  • 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)

External links[edit]