Rethinking Things in Henry James's The Spoils of Poynton
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The main objectives of this thesis are to examine the relations between people and things in American novelist Henry James's 1897 novel The Spoils of Poynton, and thus to deepen our understanding of James's engagement with material culture. Critics have tended to frame James's works in general in terms of his detachment from economic and material reality; and criticisms on the novel in particular have seen it as exemplifying the alleged detachment, interpreting the things accumulated by a female collector at Poynton, as something illusory and unsubstantial, such as a form of commodity fetishism, a Freudian fetish, or a Lacanian signifier. Contrary to the conventional view, however, this thesis argues that James, in this novel about a struggle between a mother and her son over a house and its furnishings, represents and explores physical and affective relationships between the characters and things. James, focusing on the characters' sense experience, attempts to criticize the phallocentric power of his own culture that not only excludes women from the legal right of possession but also undervalues female domestic work in spite of its support for the culture. Drawing our attention to the senses that have traditionally been thought "lower" and "feminine," and thus refusing the taxonomization and hierarchization of the senses, James expands the category of aesthetic experience. This thesis argues that in the novel, by adopting as his primary mode of writing immediate sense experience prior to philosophical abstraction, James makes clear the latent implication between cultural repudiation of the feminine and the material, on the one hand, and the political and institutionalized exclusion of women by patriarchal property law, on the other. Criticism that ignores the material urgency and presence in the novel will further replicate that patriarchal power structure.