Study Guide

What Maisie Knew Themes

  • Family

    What Maisie Knew is a book about families in more ways than one. Here's what we mean: James wants us to think about what it means to be left in the lurch by your birth family, the very people who are supposed to love you first and best.

    But Maisie should also prompt us to reflect on what it means to choose a family. Family, in this alternative understanding, isn't something you're born with; it's something you make. Here's where Maleficent comes in because just like Aurora in that tale, Maisie finds family where you'd least expect it—with a woman whose true love means more than the prior claim of bad parents.

    Questions About Family

    1. What is the significance of Mrs. Wix's dead daughter, Clara Matilda?
    2. What does the ending of What Maisie Knew suggest about the value of family?
    3. How might James's novel relate to debates about family values today?

    Chew on This

    Maisie's choice to live with Mrs. Wix shows that she has learned something—that true, time-tested love trumps biological connection.

    James's portrayal of Mrs. Wix makes it clear that she is more of a mother than either of Maisie's official mothers, Ida and Mrs. Beale.

  • Youth

    As a coming-of-age story that centers on a super-young protagonist, Maisie is a meditation on youth from start to finish. James was a great believer in depicting youth in realistic rather than sentimental terms—it's a hard-knock life for young Maisie.

    At the same time, James was also sensitive to the vulnerability of young people everywhere, and Maisie is an awesomesauce creation because of the way she combines experience with innocence and preternatural gifts—she's freakishly smart and sensitive—with a real need for protection. James writes in a way that makes us feel both of these combinations and love Maisie both for her strengths and for her weaknesses.

    Questions About Youth

    1. Is Maisie a sentimental protagonist or a realistic one? Defend your choice using evidence from the text.
    2. Does Maisie represent innocence or experience? Defend your choice using evidence from the text.
    3. If James wanted to emphasize the fact that all young people need protection, why would he have created such a resilient character?

    Chew on This

    Mrs. Wix is the only character who treats Maisie like the young person she is.

    What Maisie Knew shows the consequences of adults abandoning their responsibility for the young.

  • Education

    Maisie don't need no education. She don't need no mind control, no dark sarcasm in the classroom—because she gets plenty of education without ever going to school.

    Adults several times discuss the possibility of sending Maisie to school, but this never pans out, and Maisie gets basically no formal instruction. Instead, she learns from experience—and she learns a whole lot this way. James suggests that education happens in all kinds of settings but also occasionally implies that it's a real shame for someone so bright to be deprived of actual schooling. Stay cool; keep your kids in school.

    Questions About Education

    1. Why does James include conversations about Maisie's schooling in the novel?
    2. How does Maisie learn, if not from formal study?
    3. Who's a better teacher in the novel, Mrs. Beale or Mrs. Wix?

    Chew on This

    By showing readers what it is to go without a good education, James's novel makes a case for staying in school.

    Although she's uneducated, Mrs. Wix teaches Maisie the most important lesson of all. This fact suggests that James views experience as more important than formal instruction.

  • Innocence

    Maisie is surrounded by lots of really terrible, horrible, no good, very bad people. This is the first thing we learn about her, in the preface. And the plot only thickens as we read on, meeting adult after adulterous adult in Maisie's world.

    How she manages to stay innocent despite the corruption of her surroundings is a mystery, one that James explains by highlighting her gifts: her intelligence, sensitivity, and strength of character. What Maisie Knew seems to suggest that nature is more important than nurture in the end. But then again, Maisie does need some nurturing; she can't go it totally alone. Enter Mrs. Wix, better late than never.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. Why does Maisie not lose her innocence?
    2. How does James reveal the corruption of his adult characters?
    3. Which of James's adult characters is least corrupt?

    Chew on This

    Paradoxically, James's protagonist is both innocent and experienced.

    What Maisie Knew teaches readers that nature is more important than nurture.

  • Home

    We know you've heard it before, but it's really true in What Maisie Knew: home is where the heart is. For Maisie, this means not just where her heart is since she loves Sir Claude just as much as she loves Mrs. Wix. By the end, she realizes that his heart isn't hers the way Mrs. Wix's is.

    His loyalties are divided, but as Maisie says, repeating Mrs. Wix's words, she's all that the governess has got. So maybe this means home is where two hearts are. But the main thing to notice is that, like family, home in James's novel is something that characters actively create, not something they're born into.

    Questions About Home

    1. Why is James's denouement set in France?
    2. What is the significance of the fact that both of Maisie's parents leave England, Beale for America and Ida for South Africa?
    3. Why does Maisie choose to make a home with Mrs. Wix, rather than with Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale?

    Chew on This

    What Maisie Knew charts its protagonist's quest for a home.

    All of James's characters leave their homes because no one in What Maisie Knew feels at home.

  • Abandonment

    Which one of us hasn't felt left behind? This means that Maisie will speak to the little child in all of us who never got quite enough love, no matter how good we were or how hard we tried to earn our parents', friends', or teachers' affection.

    Luckily, though, the story is not all doom and gloom since Maisie's abandonment by adults means that, with Mrs. Wix's help, she finds resources within herself to face the world. The moral, then: abandonment is the beginning of the story, not the end.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. Why does James choose to have Maisie suffer not one abandonment but many?
    2. How does the theme of abandonment relate to the novel's genre, coming of age? Does abandonment prevent or enable the protagonist's development in What Maisie Knew?
    3. How does James's novel compare to other stories about orphans you're familiar with? Think of orphan Annie, for example, our friend Oliver Twist, or lots and lots of Disney characters.

    Chew on This

    It's ironic that although Maisie has "two fathers, two mothers, and two homes, six protections in all" (XII.1), she remains essentially alone.

    Although James's heroine is "abandoned to her fate" (Preface.6), James's novel is far from fatalistic.