The Figure in the Carpet – Henry James 

Back in February, Penguin released 80 little black classics to celebrate their 80th birthday. Naturally, I went out and bought a number of these. They are cheap (only 80p each!) and they are perfect for a quick read covering a range of writers and topics.  

As you may, or may not know, getting teenagers into reading for pleasure is a big passion of mine. Therefore, with these inexpensive and short reads, I was able to persuade some of my students to buy some of these for themselves. Being as they weren’t faced with a 200+ page novel, some of the resistance towards reading was removed. Thank you to Penguin for such a brilliant idea to celebrate their birthday. 

So, I’ve broken up from school for summer and I’m feeling incredibly tired. I decided to read another little black classic because that way I’m still reading, despite feeling exhausted. Henry James is a fascinating writer I discovered when I was at university. The Figure in the Carpet is a gripping little read with a thought provoking title. 

Henry James is one of the masters of writing Victorian mysteries, and this story is no different. It features an unnamed literary critic, who feels he has reviewed the latest work of Hugh Vereker, a distinguished novelist, as a successful masterpiece. However, when the unnamed critic meets the author in person, Vereker informs him that he whilst he sees the review as being an intelligent piece of writing, he feels he has missed the hidden underlying issue which informs all of his writing. The narrator pushes him into revealing the nature of the mystery, but Vereker adamantly refuses, claiming that it will be self-evident in any close reading of his work. 

The narrator is unable to let the mystery lie, so he enlists the help and support of his friend, the writer George Corvik and his fiancée Gwendolen Erme. However, Corvik’s mother is strongly opposed to the match. They all fail in trying to uncover the secret pattern, but, when Corvik visits India with a commision for journalistic work, he excitedly writes back to announce that he has worked out the secret. 

Corvik then manipulates this power, and refuses to reveal the secret until he has married Gwendolen. He then decides to visit Vereker in Italy on his way back to London. We are then given every reason to believe that Vereker confirms Corvick’s solution to the mystery. Corvick decides the time is right to write the definitive interpretation of Vereker’s works. 

In a turn of events, Gwendolen’s mother dies, Corvik’s wedding takes place, but he is sadly killed in an accident when he is on his honeymoon. When the narrator, rather emotionlessly, appeals to his widow for the key to the mystery that pins the whole plot together, she refuses to reveal any information she may have. It is then revealed that Corvick’s study of Vereker’s work is actually no more than an introduction, which reveals nothing regarding the mystery of the hidden underlying message of the original works. 

The narrator is adamant that Corvick would have revealed the secret to Gwendolen that he contemplates marrying her to gain this information. Despite this intention, Gwendolen publishes another book of her own and marries a fellow novelist, Drayton Deane. He is perceived as a literary and social rival on all levels. This obviously is displeasing to the narrator. 

Gwendolen then dies in childbirth, leaving the narrator to appeal to Drayten Deane. The narrator asks if she had passed any information to him regarding the key to the mystery. Sadly, she has not, and they are both left to contemplate the fact that they may never find out. 

“It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it.” 

A punchy little read, with a detailed and mysterious plot. I’ve only selected one quote because I don’t want to ruin it for you, and the story is incredibly short anyway! I was left feeling like I wanted to know the mystery too and frustrated that I didn’t know or work it out. It raised the question of what is the intention of the writer? And why? 
Thank you Penguin for these excellent little black classics for your birthday. 

Big love x




Filed under Book review, Little Black Classics, Victorian Lit

4 responses to “The Figure in the Carpet – Henry James 

  1. Now I want to own all of these books. lol

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve picked up a few of these myself. It’s one of the things I love about penguin. They publish great books and sell them cheap. When I was a teenager even if I had no money but wanted to buy books I knew I could at least pick up a few of their classics for less then the cost of a cup of coffee. I still have their copies on my bookshelves often sitting beside the nicer more expensive editions I now own of the books.


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