Anita Brookner Reads Edith Wharton and Henry James: The Problem of Moral Imagination

Ann V. Norton, Saint Anselm College
Vol. 29, No. 1 (Spring 2010), 19-33

Anita Brookner’s novels explore moral, social, and gender issues similarly to her great influences Henry James and Edith Wharton. Her narratology, however, more exhaustively and less decisively analyzes humanity’s limited comprehension and consciousness, reflecting an uncertain postmodern world. Brookner’s fascination, like Wharton’s, with women’s competition for men and the choices some make to win or lose precludes overt feminist themes and emphasizes a Darwinian survival ethic rather than traditional virtue. Brookner also conveys the Jamesian tragedy of lives unfulfilled through misperception and fear, and she insistently returns to themes of innocence betrayed and the disillusion of experience. James’s and Wharton’s characters, however, live among people who witness and appreciate their probity, and their protagonists do not envy or think fortunate those who lack integrity. Conversely, Brookner’s characters believe that their moral compass isolates and defeats them, a failure that happens, significantly, outside other characters’ awareness. Still, Brookner’s morality ultimately resembles Wharton’s and James’s, since her novels, even if unintentionally, praise empathetic, imaginatively introspective characters.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]