What Maisie Knew
Maisie’s Loss of Innocence
“Jamesian” is a term frequently used by literary scholars to describe the psychological assemblage of individual identity, a realization of consciousness and selfhood through knowledge and action, credited at times to both Henry James’s literary works and his brother William’s Theory of Self (Bayley 149). In Henry James’s 1897 novel, What Maisie Knew, the central figure of young Maisie Farange appears to embody these ideals. Caught in the middle of the chaos of love affairs and divorces, the little girl matures into an assertive, moral individual. At the novel’s conclusion, the reader is left with the sense that Maisie has escaped the immorality of the adults of her life. She has preserved her “unspotted soul” (James 5) by leaving with sensible Mrs. Wix. However, as Edward Wasiolek argues in his article “Maisie: Pure or Corrupt?”, that argument is not sufficient to describe the change Maisie has undergone throughout the novel. Wasiolek challenges previous analyses of Maisie’s character by suggesting that her soul has indeed become corrupted from absorbing the sexual drama and selfishness from the adults around her. This corruption is what gives her the power to take control of her life and sacrifice Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale. However, while Wasiolek’s analysis does ring true in certain aspects of the novel, Maisie’s corruption is perhaps not as ill-intentioned as he believes. By absorbing the immoral wrongdoings of the adults around her, Maisie learns how to put herself first in order to take possession of her future, and this selfishness poses moral incongruities within her young, yet rapidly developing selfhood.
Since James makes Maisie the central perspective of his narration, her mental growth can be traced easily over the course of the events of the novel. From the first chapter, Maisie is caught in the middle of her parents’ divorce, passed back-and-forth like a shuttlecock within their custody agreement and their petty arguments. Contrary to the assumption made by Wasiolek and other James scholars, Maggie does perceive her role as a pawn, albeit she doesn’t have the mental capacity to do anything about her position. Whether she’s pinched by her parents’ friends or mocked, “Maisy not only felt it, but she knew she felt it” (James 9). She begins to internalize her parents’ games as “they poured into her little gravely-gazing soul as a boundless receptacle” (James 12). This role of the pawn should hurt her, yet, as Wasiolek points out, “she is still blessed with the ignorance of a child” (168). Her ‘pure’ mind understands her parents’ immoral, devious behavior as normal. She learns about the world around her, but she does not understand the depths of cruelty which scaffold it. She only mimics what she does not understand.
Yet these experiences accumulate and by the time the reader reaches the end of the novel, they are faced with a new Maisie, on the brink of adolescence, who decides to end her role as the pawn. As Wasioleck suggests, “it is almost inconceivable that James would have left a character untouched by the situation she finds herself” (167). This mental shift, James appears to imply, is a shift into conscious morality. Wasioleck would call this consciousness “corruption”, but perhaps that is too harsh of a word to describe her change. It is more of a loss of innocence. One of Maisie’s strengths is her emotional receptiveness. This causes her to be liked by her governesses, Sir Claude, and strangers who meet her. It is a good skill, and Maisie uses it to her advantage. At times, she reflects the words of the adults around her, like Claude’s declaration of “I’m free!” (James 169) or she finds the right words to reassure Mrs. Wix by saying “I’d kill her” (James 211) in regards to Mrs. Beale’s mean behavior. Even in her last interaction with her father, she plays into his selfish game by refusing his offer so he can be rid of her. “I’ll do anything in the world you ask me, Papa,” she says (James 137). One could argue that Maisie’s emotional perception is a tool for manipulation. By appeasing the adults in her life, she remains securely in their care. As selfish as that may sound, for Maisie this is a way to survive. Unwanted by her own parents, she must remain in good favor with strangers like Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude otherwise she has nothing and no one. Maisie herself does not realize that this is wrong. She’s surprised when Mrs. Wix explains that her ‘bringing together’ of Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude is wrong in Ida’s eyes. “’She’ll hate you.’ ‘Me? Why, I brought them together!’ Maisie resentfully cried” (James 230). Maisie genuinely thinks she did something good by rescuing Sir Claude from her mother and starting a new family. This is where contradictions in Maisie’s morality can be found. Because of her position as a child, she is unaware of the implications of her actions until Mrs. Wix explains them to her. Maisie, on the very cusp of maturity, does not know “as does every adult in the novel, including the ‘moral’ Mrs. Wix, cruelty, coarse passion, selfishness, and lies” (Wasiolek 168). James suspends her between naivete and total understanding, forcing Maisie to create her own moral code beyond the norm of broken marriages and improper conduct, causing her intentions, as good as they might be, to be flawed during this learning process.
One dimension to Maisie’s ‘corruptive’ education is a kind of sexual awakening. While it’s not explicitly stated in the book, Wasiolek examines the changing sexual nature of Masie and Sir Claude’s relationship after they decide to travel to France. There are indeed sexual overtones during the novel’s final chapters, although they do not come from Maisie herself. Rather, Wasiolek explains, it is Sir Claude who is seriously affected by their new dynamic. “This difference was in his face, in his voice, in every look he gave her and every movement he made” (James 238). As Maisie reaches the end of her childhood, Sir Claude’s feelings about her, after acting as a kind of guardian for so long, shift unexpectedly to the point where he is frightened of himself for feeling so strongly (James 238). Indeed, she’s viewed as Mrs. Beale’s competition for Claude’s affection. How does Maisie, then, perceive and learn from this shift? Morality seems to be the primary driving force for her change, although sex plays an integral role in the development of that morality. In prior chapters, Maisie knew very little about scandalous affairs and intimate relationships, going so far as to suggest that these different intermingling adults around her should all just come live together (James 200). Now, Maisie begins to understand how these relationships have played a role in shaping her life, although she doesn’t quite have the vocabulary to describe this awakening just yet. Wasiolek would interpret this new knowledge as “corrupting” but Maisie is also now confronted with the true intentions of her parental figures and their complex interrelationships. This entry into sexual education is a lesson in social behavior that had been outside of her mental grasp as a child but, as Wasiolek states, “these are not corrupt in themselves not until they have been sullied by the heart and the will. Maisie’s intentions are still frank and honest” (172). Perhaps this is what makes her final choice to leave Claude and Mrs. Beale so powerful. She finally breaks the cyclical routine of the promiscuous adults around her by refusing to blindly follow her desires and putting her own wellbeing first. She is no longer an innocent child yet, in a way, she reaffirms her moral purity with this decision. While Wasiolek sees Maisie’s “step into adulthood” as sacrificing Mrs. Beale and Mrs. Wix for Sir Claude alone (169), that view does not align with Maisie’s eventual decision. She sees through the illusion of Sir Claude’s attempts to repeat their “London playtimes” (James 238) so that she will betray Mrs. Wix and leave with him. Instead, she has the mental strength to avoid her past childish habits of attempting to please everyone around her by choosing Mrs. Wix who wants to educate her, not just use her as a pawn.
The people who surround Maisie throughout the novel do not exist in solely black and white realms of morality of good vs. evil. As seen with Mrs. Wix and Sir Claude, they are driven to help Maisie, but they do not escape from their own selfish desires – Wix and her crush on Sir Claude, Claude and his pursuit of Mrs. Beale. Maisie, too, falls into this gray area of morality. We see her attempt to make amends with her hostile, unloving mother (James 163) then, at the end of the novel, goes as far as to nearly betray Mrs. Wix by calling her a “nobody” despite Wix’s maternal influence (James 226). One should disagree with Wasiolek’s statement that “the gusts of passion that surround her, the net of lies, deceit, all touch her lightly” (168). These experiences have touched her in the most profound way. They’ve shaped how she’s grown as a person. After participating in these games for so long, selfishness appears to be Maisie’s only solution, rather than the usual strategy of appeasement and obedience. “It is her fate, from the best of motives, to want to become like those about her” (Wasiolek 169), but it is not that she “wants” to act this way, she has no other choice. By leaving Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale behind, Maisie announces the end of the game. She’d much rather struggle with poor Mrs. Wix and navigate an uncertain future.
Maisie acts selfishly, yet her intention is not as malicious as the connotation would imply. After selflessly pleasing those around her who have returned little genuine love and affection, Maisie takes her fate into her own hands by deciding to leave Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale behind. It is fitting, in a way, that Maisie makes a self-serving choice after growing up surrounded by adults all making self-serving choices. This kind of defiance does not make her “pure” or “corrupt.” As James has shown us through the narration of her growing consciousness, human identity is complex and ever-changing. Even the most “moral” of people, such as Mrs. Wix, has her own flaws in character, as exemplified by the harsh tone she takes with Maisie when Maisie does not understand her lessons of morality (James 200). “Maisie is at the end of the novel what she knows and what she knows is the society which has breathed and taught her” (Wasiolek 167-168). Wasiolek’s analysis may appear simple, but he touches on the complexity of her maturing sense of morality and identity, and how all of these “immoral” influences have shaped the way she sees the world. Maisie’s world is not a parable of good vs. evil, rather human morality is shaped by situations and intentions and the flaws of human nature.
Maisie’s future remains utterly uncertain, a deliberate choice on James’s part. As Wasiolek writes, “Whether Maisie, once past the special grace of childhood, will become like the others; whether the first signs of self-interest will pass on to selfishness; whether battling for one’s own ends will take tools, lies, and deceit…we cannot know” (168). Maisie changes rapidly over the course of the novel and it is unclear how her terrible childhood will affect the way she navigates the next phase of her life. To reaffirm Wasiolek, Maisie’s portrayals as always innocent and “pure,” untouched by the cruelty around her, is not a very accurate analysis of the book’s events. Yet, Maisie does not fall into his label of “corrupt” either. By absorbing the harsh lessons of the adults around her, Maisie is given a harsh education of the world. Scholars who argue that Maisie has retained her “unspotted soul” underestimate her perceptiveness. Maisie is a witness to many bad events, but she uses these lessons to her advantage. “Character, for James,” Wasiolek writes, “as an immense sensibility of endless variegated sense impressions, has its very essence change, adaptation to situation, and consequently growth” (167). Maisie behaves like the players of these games by making the selfish choice to leave the board. To go from pawn to person, Maisie, always the one to appease and love total strangers, must understand sexual relationships in order to avoid these adults’ manipulation of her. It should not be so surprising, after all, that Maisie’s moral sense is not entirely perfect. She has become disillusioned by the parental figures in her life, yet she has no other positive examples to learn from. In the absence of any proper moral education, with the exception of Mrs. Wix’s brief lessons in the novel’s finale, Maisie has had to create an identity for herself and learn how to differentiate between good and bad decisions. Maisie’s shift from knowing nothing to knowing about the inner workings of family and society has the potential to be harmful, yet this self-seeking appears more honest in nature than Wasiolek’s negative interpretation.
As depicted by James, Maisie’s moral sense is both unique and precarious. As honest as her self-serving choices may be now, the reader is left with the sense that everything could go terribly wrong for her, or that she has the potential to follow in the footsteps of her cruel mother and father. By keeping her within this uncertain intersection of naivete and maturity, Henry James paints a realistic portrait of Maisie’s complex identity formation. She is growing and ever-learning, well-intentioned and emotionally receptive, yet always vulnerable to the influences of her family’s past sinful behavior. What Maisie has come to know, at the novel’s conclusion, and how she will use that knowledge as she leaves childhood behind, remains a worrying unknown, forcing the reader to confront questions of moral choice and the shaping of identity during childhood.
Bayley, James E. “A Jamesian Theory of Self.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, vol. 12, no. 2, 1976, pp. 148–165. www.jstor.org/stable/40319767.
James, Henry. What Maisie Knew. Penguin Classics, 1897. Wasiolek, Edward. “Maisie: Pure or Corrupt?” College English, vol. 22, no. 3, 1960, pp. 167– 172. www.jstor.org/stable/373353 .