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Henry James' novel Confidence

Henry James’ Lesser-Known Novel Confidence

By Henry James
347 pp (Houghton)
Houghton, Osgood and Company (Boston)
Image: 1962 Universal Library edition.


For one who appreciates Henry James’ deeply developed psychological conflict but also likes a fast-paced story, James’ lesser-known novel Confidence (1879) has both. Published during the rising tide of Daisy Miller’s notoriety, Confidence delves into Jamesian complexity of character and relationships while retaining the fast-paced style that helped make Daisy Miller popular.

The idea of confidence develops through the characters Gordon Wright, Bernard Longueville, and ultimately the heroine Angela Vivian. James takes fresh angles on the development of confidence in the characters. Tracing that development creates a lively and compelling movement throughout the story. Initially, the hero Bernard Longueville is the center of gravity among the characters. But in the second half, the force of the story shifts to Angela, even though the third-person limited-omniscient narrator continues to use Longueville as his window into the world of the characters. James commonly uses this method of restricted third-person narrator with one central character with whom the narrator partly shares perceptions. The central character normally functions, in James’ fiction, as center of gravity among the characters as well as narrative window. Longueville is that character in the first half of the novel. But what is unique to Confidence is the division in the second half of the novel: while the central character (Longueville) remains narrative window, the center of gravity shifts to Angela.

We see the characters through the narrator and through Longueville, while the characters come to see each other through Angela. This center-of-gravity shift and split from narrative window may seem a structural defect, but it effectively reinforces the evolution of confidence traced and redefined in the narrative.

The most striking evolution of confidence is in the role reversal between the characters Angela Vivian and her initial wooer Gordon Wright. Wright begins with a monopoly on confidence. Angela appears only able to rest confidence in him, with little of her own. In fact, most of the characters rest confidence in Wright. Longueville and Angela’s mother have absolute faith in Wright’s stability and strength. This relation is exactly reversed by the final chapter. Wright becomes helpless and pathetic, relying on Angela to piece his life back together. Angela’s mother and Longueville in the end have absolute faith in Angela’s intelligence and strength, instead of in Wright.

Longueville and Wright represent false confidence. In Wright’s case the falseness leads to his psychological unraveling after his weak inner self collapses under the weight of elaborate pretended confidence. Gordon Wright’s inflated self-assurance is disproportionate to his limited perceptivity and strength. This disproportion is encouraged by Longueville’s excessive compliments to Wright, and by Angela’s mother’s mantra-like repetition, “We have such confidence in him (Wright).”

Angela is initiated first. She develops early in the novel as she is scrutinized, treated as a specimen to be analyzed by the two men. Her response is subtle and powerful. She undermines the men’s perception of herself, confuses their analysis and sees through their complacent self-importance. Later in the novel, Longueville and Wright are initiated. Longueville lives under an illusion that he dislikes Angela, though in fact, he is in love with her. Wright lives under the illusion that he loves Angela, though in fact, he does not. Through their respective misguided behaviors, the men’s delusions become obvious to Angela. She has turned down Wright’s but repeated proposals of marriage.

Years pass, and Longueville accidentally runs into Angela at a coastal village of France. There, he comes to realize his own delusion.

Meanwhile, Wright has married an acquaintance of Angela’s after Angela had rejected him three years earlier. Wright’s marriage deteriorated quickly and he visits Longueville in Paris, just as Longueville has his own awakening and becomes engaged to Angela. Now Wright’s delusions must be confronted. Wright’s false self confidence becomes pathetic when he tells Angela he will divorce his wife if she will renounce Longueville and give Wright another chance. He is like a beggar pleading for crumbs after he has been kicked. Angela picks up on a complicated miscommunication within Wright’s marriage and pretends to encourage him just enough for Wright to begin to see that “getting his way” would be the worst thing in the world for him. For Wright, leaving his wife would incur the proverbial nightmarish “answered prayer.” Mr. Wright is Mr. Wrong for Angela, and he has wronged himself and his wife more than anyone else. Angela enlightens him to the fact that he still loves his own wife.

In Longueville’s case the falseness is less complete. He shows a particle of authentic, rather than pretended, self-assurance which emerges late in the novel and grows stronger as Longueville begins facing facts he previously suppressed. But his confidence still needs Angela’s support before it finally blossoms. This transition saves him from an aimless, discontented existence, and leads him back to Angela. She then completes Longueville’s awakening, both concerning himself and his friend Gordon Wright.

Longueville and Wright both owe their self-realizations to the insight and strength of character in Angela Vivian. Angela’s perspicacity cuts through the men’s veil of complacency and exposes the irony of their self-styled superiority.

Henry James dissects and analyzes the concept of confidence from every angle in the novel. Angela never needs to self-consciously assert her own self assurance and self confidence. She acts upon them spontaneously. Both men assert a falsely humble, inflated self confidence which engenders their complacency, and their deludedness. The characters’s varying types of confidence in each other change throughout the novel. The ultimate form of confidence flowers in Angela in the climax of the novel as she pretends to shun her fiancé Longueville to give Wright his “chance” to win her back.

Henry James himself is ultimately the confident analyzer of his characters and their relationships as he develops his theme. While James uses Longueville as his narrative window, James seems to identify with Angela Vivian, as Angela functions as an almost omniscient author of the other characters’ fate. As the actual author, James is the one who sorts out the miscommunication and puts the pieces back together in the broken relationships. The real author and the character Angela play a similar role. Coming on the heels of his Daisy Miller success, Confidence is a complex, true-to-life picture of a set of human relations told in a well-developed, fast-paced, entertaining narrative.