Although James's narrators can be highly snarky in his other novels, here the tone is all warmth and openheartedness.
Don't get us wrong: he takes some pleasure in exposing the hypocrisy of the adults in Maisie's world, reserving particularly bitter irony for Ida. But overall, the narrator in Maisie remains compassionate and caring—close to Maisie and even a little protective of her, as well as impressed by the feats of understanding she's able to pull off:
She still had room for wonder at what Maisie knew. (XXXI.154)
Mrs. Wix ends the story impressed and mystified by how much Maisie has learned, and how she has not ended up a bitter little hellion with all that adult knowledge inside of her tiny noggin. And we do, too—Maisie is a fascinating and sympathetic little character.
But James also shows off his own capacity for wonder at what all of his characters know—even Ida, whom he treats the most harshly, is seen through the compassionate lens of the Captain, when he says to Maisie:
"She'll go through anything for any one she likes … Look here, she's true!" (XVI.32)
The Captain may be dead wrong, ultimately, but he does lend Ida some humanity. James, an undisputed master of giving his characters psychological depth, makes us all wonder not only what Maisie knew, but what all characters—and perhaps people—knew and know.
This one is kind of a no-brainer: Maisie is six years old when we first meet her, and James follows her along a path of self-discovery and growth. We can't be sure how old she is when What Maisie Knew is over, but we do know for sure that she's wise beyond her years.
Always quick and perceptive, Maisie only gets more so as the novel progresses. And if James has his way, then we grow smarter with her—Maisie's coming of age should not only remind us of our own coming of age stories, but our reading experience should help us learn again how important moral centeredness is. Pretty much every time you learn a new, pesky life lesson, it's about as mystifying and transformational as coming of age all over again, right?
But, sheesh, without learning those moral lessons, you end up as shallow (wo)man children like Maisie's parents.
James's title is crucial, and readers will be quick to notice his frequent variations on it throughout the book. Not only are the novel's last words the same as the title's words, but James also repeatedly remarks on various things Maisie knew, knows, and will come to know. Watch out for related verbs and actions as well: understanding, seeing, intuiting, sensing, learning, etc.
All of this clues us in that What Maisie Knew is a novel that's first and foremost about its heroine's mind—and the growth and change that that mind undergoes. This is one little twist to the title, adding to its significance: on their own, the words "what Maisie knew" seem to name something static: "She knew the capital of Alabama," for instance. But in this novel, James treats knowing as a dynamic process—and that's where almost the entire interest of his novel resides.
In the novel's last sentence, Mrs. Wix marvels that:
She still had room for wonder at what Maisie knew. (XXXI.154)
This means that a whole lot of the book is summed up in those final words: almost the entire novel focuses on what Maisie has learned. But these words also suggest that "what Maisie knew" at the end differs from what she knew at the beginning. This girl is nothing, after all, if not a learner.
But check it out—we have two learners present in this sentence. Both Maisie and Mrs. Wix are described as keen on the learning proces—which is possibly why they're made for each other. Mrs. Wix still has "room" (in her mind) to "wonder" (and learning, at least after school is over, is always preceded by wonder) at the contents of Maisie's little noggin. These two keen learners are together at last, and Henry James, in a rare moment of optimism, suggests that they might just live fairly happily ever after.
The journeys in Maisie are mostly inner. But for good measure—and to make sure that readers don't miss his point—James adds a real travel narrative into his story of self-discovery.
Maisie makes her way from London, where she has remained since the beginning of the novel, to France by way of the port city of Folkestone. And this journey really shakes things up; its effect is to say, "Okay reader, pay attention now," and attention is exactly what you'll want to pay. Because in Boulogne, Maisie herself becomes more attentive and alive, and that's a clue that her life is about to change forever there.
There's also the fact that all of Maisie's guardians, with the notable exception of Mrs. Wix, decide to flee London. Maisie's dear old dad goes to America. Maisie's mommy dearest goes to South Africa. And even Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale end up in France. This shows us that there are two kinds of voyages present in What Maisie Knew: the voyage of a girl's self-discovery (huzzah!) and the voyages that consist of running away from responsibility and Victorian morality.
And it's also worth noting that the Boulogne jaunt is put in this novel in order to underline not only the change in Maisie's life, but also the fact that she gets to then, literally, travel home with Mrs. Wix.
Sure, it has a very young protagonist. But that doesn't make What Maisie Knew kid stuff. It's not even young adult stuff; it's the anti-YA novel. Not to diss Disney, but Maisie is no Disney princess, even if she and Aurora may have a few things in common.
That's because James writes chapters, paragraphs, and sentences that pose challenges to even the savviest and most sophisticated readers. So slow down, take your time, and reread that paragraph that seemed to mean nothing the first time you read it. We promise that with enough patience, your rereading will pay off, even if it sometimes feels like a slog.
A slog because, as in James's other books, characters in Maisie often intuit more than they express. So, on the one hand, a lot is left unsaid, and precious little happens—but, on the other hand, James devotes unthinkable amounts of space to the little that does happen. He magnifies the most micro of his characters' thoughts, feelings, gestures, and facial expressions.
"The litigation had seemed interminable" (Preface.1) is how James's novel begins, and as a result of James's microscopic attention to and passion for psychological description, the book itself sometimes seems interminable. (James himself called it his "interminable little Maisie.") It's well worth wading through, though, and sorting out its complexities, which are there for a very good reason.
The difficulties we have mirror those that Maisie faces as she, too, tries to make sense of a senseless world. So we owe it to her to keep at it. If she can do it, so can you!
James is famous for his complicated sentences, dense and minute psychological descriptions, and extra-long paragraphs, and What Maisie Knew is no exception to this rule. It helps as you're reading and rereading these sentences to ask yourself: what would be lost if James wrote in a simpler, more straightforward way? Why not just come out and say what's happening? Or, when nothing is happening—which is often in this novel—why not just come out and say what a character thinks? Well, because people are complicated, and to make them seem easy would be to miss this fundamental Jamesian point.
Consider this moment during Maisie's last meeting with her father:
[…] for a time, while they sat together, there was an extraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, his vision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision. (XIX.1)
Crazy, right? We agree. But then, all this really does pass between father and daughter that day. James wants to record that meeting in all its complexity and not leave anything out. And actually, this passage is pretty dang succinct considering it describes four levels of looking: 1) Beale looking at Maisie 2) Maisie seeing Beale look at her 3) Beale seeing Maisie see Beale looking at her and 4) *inhale* Maisie seeing Beale see Maisie see Beale looking at her.
Yup—those are all different looks. And James describes this crazy transaction way more succinctly than we did.
James, who was both a prolific writer of ghost stories and a staunch Victorian, dramatically equates divorce with death early on in Maisie, when the narrator refers to Ida as Beale's "late wife" (Preface.1).
This doesn't mean that Ida Farange is literally dead, but this may be a clue that she, like others in little Maisie's world, is dead inside. And the idea that James's characters are undead—not full-blown zombies but somehow half-alive—keeps coming back to haunt them later, as well.
This makes Maisie's constant energy and her unshakeable willingness to face challenges of all kinds that much more remarkable. Lots of adults may be half-dead, but Maisie is very much alive.
James is also parading his Victorian sensibilities with this comment: he's talking about how the institution of marriage is dead. Divorcees aren't just dead inside; they're evidence that society itself is crumbling. James here is throwing up his hands and saying, "Divorce! What next? Ladies wearing trousers?!"
Although he does have a point, with these characters. Ida and Beale aren't merely people who fell in love, tried to make a go of it, and failed. They're serial monogamists and flit from relationship to relationship without any sense of commitment, and they don't care whose hearts get trampled on as long as they continue to have fun and rack up notches on their respective bedposts. They don't even care if young Maisie is left in the lurch. And that's messed up by any standard.
Much like the spate of zombie fiction in the 2000s and early 2010s was a reflection of some pretty dire circumstances, Henry James's comments on divorcees being "undead" is his way of giving us some oblique social commentary. James? Being oblique? You don't say.
Here's another image from James's preface that does important work when it comes to setting the tone for the book as a whole:
What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding [Maisie] to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed. (Preface.6)
Sounds harsh, we know. But that's James's whole point: even at age six, Maisie will have to deal with everyone else's awful negativity. She'll somehow have to convert "biting acids" into nourishment, and the marvelous thing about her is that, with Mrs. Wix's help, she finally finds a way.
But let's break this quote down. James continues to describe Maisie in vessel, or cup-like, terms throughout the novel. By referring to her in this way, James is saying that innocence is a state of lack. When you're innocent, you're like an empty cup, waiting to be filled up with orange juice or tea or vinegar or, yeesh, biting acids. Fair enough, right? Today, we use expressions like "blank slate" or "empty canvas" when we talk about kiddos and innocence in general.
This wasn't exactly the case back in the Victorian era, though. Children were thought to already exist in a state of innocence, and experience— especially sexual experience, and especially for girls—was thought to "tarnish" that. Innocence wasn't a cup; it was more like a white cloth that life covered in the ketchup stains and coffee rings and muddy footprints of experience.
See the difference? James is firmly in the "nurture" camp of childhood development (fill that vessel with something good!), while social thought of the time was pretty much Team Nature (don't soil that already perfect kid!). James, with his handy-dandy vessel metaphor, shows that experience a) is not always bad and b) needs to be closely monitored by parents.
We discuss in "What's Up With the Title?" and elsewhere that What Maisie Knew was pretty radical at the time. This symbol of the vessel gets right to the heart of that. James isn't portraying a little girl as necessarily good and pure—she isn't a white cloth. Instead, she is just a small version of a human: she has foibles and wants and confusion just like the rest of us. However, because she is a child, she can be filled with positive, enriching experiences and knowledge (like a nourishing soup) instead of damaging, negative, soul-crushing ones (like acid). Us adults are already filled vessels—and to be honest, we're probably filled with the emotional equivalent of what happens when you mix all of the sodas at the soda fountain into one Big Gulp container.
James's use of point of view is one thing—the main thing, even—that makes What Maisie Knew a big deal.
It's probably the reason this book is famous, so you'll want to pay attention to how James's narrative perspective stays close to Maisie's limited perspective on every page. After James's preface, which fills readers in on backstory in an omniscient way, we're right there with Maisie until the end.
James uses limited omniscient narration to bring her experience home to us and help us understand her. A bitter divorce is "confounding to a young intelligence" (I.1), and so it is to our consciousness as readers who are with Maisie in the dark, only gradually able to make sense of what's happening around her.
When Maisie's stepparents first appear, both seem dreamy indeed. James emphasizes their physical appeal (they're both sexpots—check them out in the movie version) and their way with Maisie, who's taken to them from the first. Still, Maisie can sense that Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude keep secrets from her, though she can't quite say what it is they keep secret. And besides, neither figure can be trusted to come through for her or keep promises. Boo, hiss.
Things come to a head when Maisie is forced to choose between these hotties, who have offered to take care of her, and Mrs. Wix, whose offer rules out Maisie continuing to live with "criminals." (This is Mrs. Wix's way of talking about the adulterers Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude. Remember, James agrees with her and makes her the voice of moral reason in his book.) James makes Maisie's voyage at this stage literal as well as figurative: she travels to France with Sir Claude and is soon joined there by Mrs. Wix. Here's where the adults will conduct a battle of wills, but Maisie will be left alone to choose which adoptive parents to make her own.
Again, Maisie's choice of Mrs. Wix represents a homecoming in more ways than one. Shortly after she decides to stay with her governess, rather than live with Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude, Maisie and Mrs. Wix board a boat together. This means that they're homeward bound, and we know that Maisie has finally found her way to safety—and secured herself a home—even though in another way, since she's so young, her journey has only just begun.
Farange v. Farange and Others is the nasty divorce that begins What Maisie Knew. And the whole novel really is about the case's fallout. James's preface and first chapters in particular trace the consequences of the divorce for Maisie, the six-year-old daughter of Beale and Ida Farange, who's fated to be shuttled from house to house and from uncaring parent to uncaring parent until someone—anyone—saves her.
At first, Mrs. Beale and especially Sir Claude seem like good candidates for the role of rescuer. Both of Maisie's new stepparents are beautiful, charming, and benevolent. And both show particular fondness for Maisie. They're as good to the little girl, if not ever as reliable, as Maisie's beloved governess, the wacky Mrs. Wix. But the plot thickens when Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude start to secretly date each other.
Mrs. Wix disapproves of the adulterous adults and tries to get Sir Claude to leave Mrs. Beale so that he can start an honest life as Maisie's guardian and protector. Her idea is that the three of them should live happily ever after: Mrs. Wix, Maisie, and Sir Claude. And she's the voice of morality in James's novel, although not its most glamorous figure. This means that we're rooting for Sir Claude to do the right thing all the while. But he can't seem to commit; he's too fond of Mrs. Beale or too weak to leave her behind, and besides, Mrs. Beale keeps pursuing him. She even goes to France, where the drawn-out crisis of What Maisie Knew is set. Three adults duke it out for Maisie's love, leaving her to decide all on her own: will she go with Mrs. Wix, letting her conscience be her guide? Or will she choose the beautiful and well-meaning but adulterous couple as parents instead?
Spoiler alert! Maisie's decision to live with Mrs. Wix rather than with her stepparents marks the conclusion of James's novel. And some conclusion it is: it's bittersweet since Maisie will lose two parental figures, but she has done the right thing by Mrs. Wix's standards. And remember, Mrs. Wix represents the voice of moral reason for James. So it's a relief to see Maisie discover her moral sense, freeing herself from the deceitful adults in her world and choosing to stay loyal to the one true guide she has known.