I’ve always had a hard time with Henry James. I don’t think the mechanics of his writing is enjoyable, or even very good, and his plots tend to be in the vein of very rich white folks going “woe is me.” Engaging this text in means of failure is interesting to me because John Marcher seems to fit the ideals of success.
The easiest way to examine this story through the lens of failure is to approach it through queer theory – John and May are friends, and May essentially exists to let John appear as though he’s a “normal man,” but I think we should examine it a little closer.
One of the things that has bothered me about James’ writing in the past is the way people project onto each other. There’s a really prime example of this at the end of chapter II, where the text reads (and I’m reading this as from the POV of John,) “Her silence, with the face she showed, was almost a confession.” Pg 49 Now for me, that is a hell of a lot to read into a silence and a facial expression. John thinks he can see into May’s mind. In this moment, John is transgressing the boundary between the self and the other.
Then, we can read a POV switch to may. “All this might be true, for she did look as if, unexpectedly to her, he had crossed some mystic line that she had secretly drawn around herself. Yet she might not, after all, not have worried: and the real climax was that he, himself, at all the events, needn’t. “You’ll never find out.” Pg. 49.
So in these two paragraphs, we get so many transgressions of the boundary between self and other. John sort of feels he’s reading Mays mind. Mechanically, we get a sort of blurry switch in POV between John and May. The text literally talks about John “crossing a mystical line.” Furthermore, we switch from exposition to dialogue without a tag. Sure this functions to whip up some drama and mystery, but it also formally shows us a transgression of boundaries between different types of story-telling- a seamless switch between one mode of telling and another.
I think seamlessness is the key in all these boundary transgressions in these two tiny paragraphs. Pov, mode of telling, and self and other are being transgressed, but without much attention being payed between switching from one to the other. To me, this exemplifies Halberstam’s presentation of queerness being defying arbitrary categorization. It’s about transgressing inorganic boundaries in favor of embracing messiness.
So how does this tie into the obnoxious class politics of this story? I don’t know. Maybe one of you can help me make some sense. Or maybe I’ll exercise passivity, and enjoy failing in my understanding of why it’s such a big fucking deal that John things he’s destined for something terrible.