Henry James, “Louisa Pallant” revisited

When my piece on Henry James’s 1888 story ‘Louisa Pallant’ first appeared on the Mookse and Gripes site on May 14 (and again here on this site), it inspired several interesting comments and queries. I’ll answer them briefly there, but thought I’d take the opportunity here on my own site to expand a little on some of the thoughts they produced in my mind.

First there’s the odd, repeated use of religious terminology by Louisa about her daughter Linda (of whom she had said to the narrator, her former lover, that ‘she’s a bad, hard girl, who would poison any good man’s life!) – a query raised in a Mooke and Gripes comment by Betsy Pelz:

‘You make my reparation – my expiation – difficult!’

When the narrator, the uncle of the young man (Archer Pringle) who Louisa fears her daughter has ‘marked’ as a suitably eligible (ie wealthy) target for marriage, repeats these expressions a little later, she adds:

‘She’s my punishment and she’s my stigma!’

She goes on:

‘She’s cased in steel; she has a heart of marble. It’s true – it’s true. She appals me!’

I believe this startling condemnation fits with the portrayal of Louisa throughout the story. In its second section the narrator reflects on her ‘improved and degenerate’ nature; she was, he feels, ‘spiritually speaking, vulgarised’, sceptical. She strikes him as ‘having seen more of the evil of the world than of the good’, and

her devotion to her daughter had been a kind of religion.

In training and educating Linda to ‘reach a high point’ she had made of her daughter ‘the star of her mother’s heaven’, the ‘source of the only light’ on her path: she ‘stood her in stead of every other religion.’ Linda’s role, as taught by Louisa, is that of ‘an educated angel.’

This spiritual-religious imagery is clear and sustained. Soon after the ‘reparation/expiation’ references Louisa’s language develops the theme:

‘It’s a satisfaction to my own conscience – for I have one, little as you think I have a right to speak of it. I have been punished by my sin itself. I have been hideously worldly…and I have taught her to be so…’


She goes on to describe Linda’s ruthless ambition to ‘climb up to the top and be splendid and envied there – to do it at any cost or by any meanness and cruelty, is the only thing she has a heart for. She would lie for it, she would steal for it, she would kill for it!’

There could be an allusion here to Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, where Satan takes him to a high point and offers him all he can see. The narrator feels that Louisa has been suffering from this ‘knowledge’ about Linda:

It relieved her to warn and denounce and expose. ‘God has let me see it in time, in his mercy,’ she continued; ‘but his ways are strange, that he has let me see it in my daughter. It is myself that he has let me see, myself as I was for years. But she’s worse…than I ever intended or dreamed’ […Louisa] looked up at the faint stars with religious perversity.


James is intent, then, on portraying Louisa in this ambiguous, paradoxical way: her desire to save Archie from Linda’s clutches has a quasi-religious fervour and she adopts a tone at times like this almost of an evangelical preacher; but he is at pains to show, ironically, that this sits badly with her own previous moral lassitude and history of instructing Linda in the wiles of sexual deception in order to satisfy her worldly desires through her attractive appearance and demeanour (a devilish strategy which had worked for Louisa, ten years earlier, when she attracted then jilted the narrator).

It seems to me that James mixes this type of language and imagery with that of another famously scheming, worldly and cynical, sexually perverse couple in Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons; this becomes particularly apparent in Louisa’s very next words; she sees that the narrator believes that she is ‘acting a part’ by warning him so pointedly about Linda’s evil nature:

‘Your suspicion is perfectly natural: how can anyone tell, with people like us?’


Interesting to see she includes the narrator in this perception, and he doesn’t demur; on the contrary, ‘these last words brought tears to my eyes’, he says. Later she links her morality and calm hypocrisy with Linda’s: she points out again that everything between them is ‘implied’, and ‘nothing expressed’; there is ‘our perpetual worldiness, our always looking out for chances’. Such things must be withheld from spoken discourse between ‘persons who like to keep up forms.’ This of course reminds us that we can’t fully trust anything Louisa says – including her account of Linda’s viciousness (although in the final paragraph of the story the narrator confides that he is ‘convinced that [Linda’s] mother was sincere.’ But he is, by his own admission, hardly the most perceptive of narrators – a Jamesian hallmark.)

On two separate occasions the ‘comedy’ of worldly deception being played out by Linda with Archie is referred to, first when the narrator is suspiciously considering whether Louisa’s hostility towards her daughter was just ‘a deeper artifice’ (the devil is the great artificer), a ‘plan of her own for making sure of my young man’, seen by her as ‘a great catch…might she not have arranged this little comedy, in their personal interest, with the girl?’

Later, Louisa herself refers to the way Linda contrived to have Archie take her out for a romantic rowing trip on the lake as ‘a part of all the comedy!’ Like Valmont and de Merteuil, the narrator and Louisa are ex-lovers; like them, Louisa is skilled in the use of sexual seduction as a weapon or tool with which to achieve her selfish ends; she too has made men her victims (our narrator in particular) with her cruel games and manipulative skills. Like dramatists (or purveyors of fiction?) Laclos’s two ancien régime aristocrats stage-manage their perverse sexual dramas for their own gratification. Louisa claims to have undergone a kind of conversion followed by repentance and desire to atone – this religious terminology therefore serves brilliantly to highlight the dramatic nature of that putative reversal; both she (to all appearances) and the narrator as a consequence experience a moral, almost spiritual epiphany which causes them, in their own ways, to forgive (the emotionally wounded narrator) and atone for previous cruelty (Louisa).

Another literary parallel that occurs to me is that Louisa’s ‘making’ her child into what she calls a ‘monster’ of cruelty resembles Mary Shelley’s protagonist in Frankenstein, who also creates a monstrously destructive, vengeful and vindictive creature who turns in jealous fury on the ‘parent’ he feels has wronged him in creating him.

As Louisa tells the narrator, she will have ‘done [her] duty’ if she succeeds in saving Archie from Linda. ‘It isn’t for you that I do it; it’s for myself’, she tells him. His response is to acknowledge bemusedly that he can’t ‘penetrate’ her reasons. Elsewhere she suggests ‘if I hadn’t thrown you over I couldn’t do this for you’. But as I indicated in the previous post on this story, James leaves us wondering whether Louisa’s motives in warning off Archie are as selflessly expiatory as she leads the narrator (and readers) to believe; it could simply be that she thinks a richer target than Archie might be found.

Finally: in earlier posts on the stories of Henry James I have made reference to the significance of the Point of View of narrators and characters. In this story, too, there is explicit use made of this term; Louisa tells the narrator that Linda hasn’t discussed her devious schemes with her mother:

‘Lord! for what do you take us? We don’t talk over things to-day. We know each other’s point of view and we only have to act. We can take reasons, which are awkward things, for granted.’

‘But in this case she certainly doesn’t know your point of view, poor thing.’

‘No – that’s because I haven’t played fair. Of course she couldn’t expect I would cheat. There ought to be honour among thieves. But it was open to her to do the same.’ [She goes on to explain: Linda could have ‘fallen in love with a poor man; then I should have been done.’]


The ambiguity in this story and the shifting ‘points of view’ of its characters are typical of James’s narrative skill and artistic genius. Once again I commend the story to you. Even minor Henry James stories like ‘Louisa Pallant’ have much to offer.

7 thoughts on “Henry James, “Louisa Pallant” revisited

  1. What a wonderful interplay here, Simon, a 21st Century literary salon in action! Bravo.

    As I sweat away in my unairconditioned office getting ready for a deadly busy Tuesday at work, your reconsideration of James’ “Louisa Pallant” is a welcome tonic. What an amazingly subtle genius he had, able to detect the finest shadings in human behavior and interaction. The same subtlety found in the greatest chefs, composers, painters, etc. in their own arenas.

    Just occurred to me that James sounds very much like what is now sometimes called the “highly sensitive person.” He must have been bombarded with stimulation while out in the world. I can see him craving solitude, simply for the chance to rest and clear his mind, as well as ponder over all that he had taken in. Rather than any innate asexuality, which I sometimes thought might have explained his solitary life, I think he may have simply concluded that the level of seclusion and introversion his great mind demanded left him unsuited for the hub-bub of family life. Hmmmm.

    Now free for two days. Yay! (Is Monday a holiday in the UK?)

    Cheers, Maureen M.

    • Yes he does seem to embody the figure of the secluded artist; I recall an essay I read about Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’ which saw the poem as a metaphor for the dilemma of the artist: the need for solitude in which to create, but the conflicting need to go out in the world to gather experience causes problems. It is a holiday here on Monday- sorting the garden. Have a good weekend, Maureen.

  2. Simon, thank you for this wonderful take on the story. It encompasses the variety of motive and defense that James’s characters employ and the mesh of which is so difficult to express. These people’s characters are in a state of constant movement, action, and reaction.

    Your take on the story gets at that.

    I am reluctant to pull one thread, as all the threads of this essay are thought provoking. But I am really taken with this one: the narrator comments on Louisa- “her devotion to her daughter had become a kind of religion.”

    James is continually interested in the way parents appropriate their children to their own uses. I found this to be one of the primary impulses in “The Golden Bowl” and I am interested to see it here, a dozen years earlier. As for the”Frankenstein” link, this is brilliant! Even if he is not influenced by Shelley, this comparison perfectly expresses the level of danger that Linda represents, the kind of mindlessness that Louisa represents.

    Your deft admonition regarding the “religious” language feels right on – that James has purposely made Louisa’s use of it ironic, given everything she has done and not done, and given that she may be seeking a wealthier quarry than Archie.

    There is an echo of this religious language in “The Golden Bowl”. I think some people are tempted to sentimentalize what James means by it. Evil, with a capital E, is his topic, and at times, the way people make religious heroes of themselves is evil as well.

    Finally – “Dangerous Liaisons”! How perfect! In fact, “Dangerous Liaisons” explains so much of James that is so inexplicable, even now. What I like, though, in “The Golden Bowl” is that Evil comes in the guise of Charlotte, an American opportunist; what I like in the story is that it is not the old world that is evil, or the Europeans, but the American, first of all, and only secondarily, her daughter.

    I hope you continue to explore the stories for a while. The novels are great, but daunting. I can almost keep up with you when it’s “just” a short story.

  3. “Parents appropriate their children to their own uses”: this insight is spot on, I think. James’s ambivalence about child-parent relationships is as troubled and troubling as Dickens’ – and of course links with his famously suspicious view of marriage as an institution almost guaranteed to stifle the individual’s capacity to create artistically. It’s interesting to consider, in this light, the notion of the Frankenstein ‘creator’ whose emulation of a god brings about terrible consequences. Louisa fashions Linda into the monster who she comes, she claims, to be appalled by…but there’s maybe an element of admiration there, too. That’s what makes James’s narratives to stimulating: it’s often possible to discern conflicting implications in the one story – or character. Thanks for these thought-provoking comments, Betsy – and for your generous link to this ‘revisit’ piece over on the Mookse site.

  4. [Re “Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’ which saw the poem as a metaphor for the dilemma of the artist.”]

    Have you by chance read “Art and Artist” by Otto Rank (Early protégée of Freud, who later broke away). Amazing analytical mind at work.

    Hope garden now on its way to being “sorted”!

    Maureen M.

  5. Pingback: Betrayed by her singer: Henry James, 'The Aspern Papers' - Tredynas Days

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