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Taoist Reading of Henry James novel, The American

A Taoist Reading of Henry James’ novel, The American

Henry James’ novel, The American, tells the story of one man’s journey in search of the Tao. Or, rather, the qualities of Christopher Newman are the qualities of a student of the Tao, following the teachings of the Sage described in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Each time Newman digresses from his path, the lure or object which he desires eventually pushes him back on to it. James’s description of Newman as an American incorporates many tenets of the Tao, beginning with the sudden enlightenment on Wall Street that leads to the events in this novel. Likewise, James’s Europe rings of Confucianism, the belief system that Taoism eventually replaced in 7th century BC China.

As the Introduction to the Penguin edition states, Newman’s American qualities can be taken in either a positive or negative light. Our class discussion revealed a resounding agreement with the negative side of Newman as an American, his uncultivated ignorance and unrefined audacity. Sadly, the class has accepted Europe’s negative stereotype of the American. On the positive side, Newman’s Taoist qualities make him the ideal American. Because of his near perfection, he is despised by those characters whose imperfections he silently reveals. It is perhaps this very interaction between Newman’s Taoist American qualities and the more Confucian qualities of the Europeans which originally fostered these negative stereotypes.

Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy dating back as early as the 6th century BC. Many Chinese philosophers have attempted to put the Tao into writing, the most widely known being Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching, loosely translated as the Book of Virtues, contains 81 poems assert…

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… order of things. His lack of culture, social grace, and position allow him to enjoy what he finds aesthetically pleasing rather than settle for what he should; and communicate to others his true nature rather than one shrouded in applied labels and preconceived notions. Newman, and many Americans, are like the Taoist concept of the uncarved block. The most skilled sculptor carves the least. Our lack of strictly defined stratification and culture leaves us empty and thus open to whatever may fill us, rather than already full and closed-minded.

Works Cited and Consulted

Borus, Daniel. Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Dalton, Jerry O., Tao Te Ching: Backward Down the Path. Avon Books, New York, 1996.

Kaplan, Nancy. Essential Readings in Realism. Durham: Duke University Press,1997.

Point of View of Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown

Point of View of “Young Goodman Brown”

Point of view is “one of the most prominent and persistent concerns in modern treatments of the art of prose fiction” (Abrams 231). This essay will treat of how the story is told in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” what type of narrator tells it, and through whose perception the reader receives the tale – in other words, the point of view of this short story (Axelrod 336).

In this story the mode or point of view by which the author presents the characters, dialogue, actions, etc. is that of a third-person narrator, who uses proper names and third-person pronouns to designate the various characteris in the tale:

YOUNG GOODMAN BROWN came forth at sunset, into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap, while she called to Goodman Brown.

The narrator possesses the capablility of reading the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist, the young Puritan husband, Goodman Brown, only among all the characters. As Brown turns the corner at the meeting house, he thinks:

“Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight. But, no, no! ‘twould kill her to think it. Well; she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven.”

This ability of the narrator…

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…ren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.

It would seem that the narrator becomes omniscient rather than limited in his point of view near the end of the tale.

The vital role that point of view plays in “Young Goodman Brown” makes it obvious why Abrams would say that point of view is “one of the most prominent and persistent concerns in modern treatments of the art of prose fiction” (231).


Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

Axelrod, Rise B. The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing, 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” 1835.

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