An Analysis of the Narrative of Henry James' What Masie Knew

Categories: Literature


“James’s narrator, this invisible adult – and probably masculine – presence, has a significant role to play…” This is what Millicent Bell thinks about the role of the narrator in What Maisie Knew by Henry James.

In this paper, I will try to show the importance of the way the story is narrated for the effect it has on the reader.

I will first try to find a general definition for the term “narrator” for it has been discussed in literature in many different ways.

I will give a few examples of the different opinions in literature and then state my own opinion.

Then, I will give a short explanation of the term “focalization” because it is closely connected with the term “narrator”.

This is what Patrick O’Neill means when he writes in his book Fictions of Discourse:

“To begin with terminology, the story is presented – transformed into the narrative text – through a double mediation, namely a ‘voice that ‘speaks’ and ‘eyes’ that ‘see’…”

The “voice” O’Neill talks about is the narrator and the “eyes” stand for the focalizer.

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This makes obvious, that one depends on the other and one cannot exist without the other.

Finally, I will try to draw a line between this theoretic approach and the meaning of the narrator and of focalization for the work What Maisie Knew.

Definition of the Term “Narrator”

In literature, there are different definitions of the term “narrator”. Gerald Prince simply calls the narrator “the one who narrates”, Katie Wales says the narrator is “a person who narrates”.

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Mieke Bal is of a different opinion. For her, the narrator is the “agent which utters the linguistic signs which constitute the text… a narrator is not a ‘he’ or ‘she”.

Peck and Coyle choose the easy way: “The narrator tells the story in a novel.” They explain the function of the narrator but do not define who or what he/she/it can be.

In my opinion, the truth lies in a mixture of these definitions. If we agree that we find many different ways of narrating a story (first-person narrator, third-person narrator, sometimes even second-person narrator), why can the narrator not be a person in one story and a linguistic agent in another?

We as readers tend to assume that there is a person who tells the story. This is especially the case when the l-form is used by the narrator. Then, it usually refers to itself as a character in the story. For example, one of the first sentences in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is “So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.” Pip is the protagonist in the book and tells his own story. But he is not a real person.

If the story is told by an omniscient narrator this one can mostly be described as a linguistic agent. In these cases we do not have a character in the story who tells it but a linguistic agent that constitutes the text.

Only in an autobiography, the narrator refers to a real person (even though in another period of time, namely his or her past): the one who tells the story of his or her life.

In all other cases, it is important to distinguish the narrator from the real author and also from the implied author. The real author is a real, authentic person. In my above example the real author, of course, is Charles Dickens. The term “implied author” refers to an implied leader of the story. It is the one who decides how a text is structured and what events in the life of the protagonist should be told. This is to say, the implied author has the power to choose what the reader is informed about. The

implied author functions as a link between the real author (who is outside the text) and the narrator (who is within the text), in my example Pip. It encodes what the real author wants to tell the reader.

Definition of the Term “Focalization”

As I already mentioned in the introduction, narrator and focalizer “work” together in order to present a story. The focalizer in a text perceives the things that happen and we can distinguish internal from external focalization.

If internal, the focalizer is a character of the story. Naturally, in this case the focalizer is restricted to a certain point of view. He can only perceive what happens around him, things that happen when he is present or things that he is told. The external focalizer usually is omniscient and free to move in time and space. It is also called narrator-focalizer.

Focalization can vary throughout the text, it can change from internal to external focalization and back.

We usually distinguish between three different kinds of focalization. It is called fixed focalization when there is only one focalizer in the whole text. Variable focalization means that we can find two or more different character-focalizers. The story is then told from different points of view. When we find several different types of focalization in one text (character-focalizer and narrator-focalizer), we call it multiple focalization. Here, the narrator can choose if it focalizes the objects of focalization himself or if it uses a character-focalizer.

Moreover, when we have a subject of focalization (the focalizer) there must also be an object of focalization (the focalized). Objects of focalization can be concrete things but also abstracts (like sounds or temperature) as well as persons (other characters in the narrative).

The Role of the Narrator in What Maisie Knew

We always assume that a story is narrated by a person and in What Maisie Knew, we get the impression that the story is told by a person who witnessed the things that happened to Maisie because of different reasons.

First of all, the narrator uses the personal pronoun “T”. Moreover, we know from the preface that the real author Henry James found the inspiration for his work in an actual incident. Reading the book, we get the impression that he tells the story (something he witnessed) himself.

Neither is there any hint for a female narrator, nor do we find indications for a black person, a Jew or a native American. Since we suppose that any deviation of the norm would be indicated and since the literary style is one of a highly educated person, we assume that the narrator must be a white upperclass male adult.

As stated before, the narrator can be described as the voice of the focalizer. In What Maisie Knew, the focalizer is Maisie almost all the time. Thus, we find an internal focalizer or character-focalizer.

But interestingly, we have a narrator that is not involved in the story. He is never spoken to and he has no contact to or influence on the characters in the story. Even though Maisie is the focalizer she is not the narrator of the story!

This makes obvious, that the narrator plays an important rule in What Maisie Knew because he has the function of a translator for Maisie. She needs this translator because she is a small child and very often, she is not able to explain what she perceives. She does not have the linguistic abilities to do so. Here, the narrator is used because he has words to express Maisie’s experiences. The gap between the sophisticated language of the narrator and the perceptions of a child builds up a certain tension. The narrator’s language helps the reader to understand more than Maisie understands. Moreover, it makes the reader superior to the adults in the story because he is informed about their behavior and about how Maisie sees it.

In this context, Gordon Pirie writes: 

“Thus the important developments in the story … are described not simply through her ‘dim sense’ of them – as would be the case if the story took the form of a first-person narrative told by Maisie. Her sense of them is presented objectively, as something placed and framed by the author’s commentary, which ‘constantly attends and amplifies’, and by our understanding more than, or something different from, what Maisie herself understands.”

Pirie comes to the conclusion that this way of narrating the story is intends to make the reader realize his own distance from the innocence of childhood. We feel superior to Maisie but are amazed of her simple understanding of life at the same time.

Nevertheless, we depend on what Maisie knows because the narrator does not know more than she does. Do not forget: most of the time Maisie is the focalizer even though she does not tell the story!

Because of the fact that the story is told from Maisie’s point of view we have to use our adult experiences in order to go beyond what Maisie can realize. We have to think about her life and the things that happen.

Juliet Mitchell puts it this way:

“In his Notebooks, in his Preface and in the novel, James tells us that the young child Maisie saw more than she understood. … What Maisie knows is what we know, which is what the narrator knows, which is what James knows…”

The translation of Maisie’s perceptions we receive from the narrator gives us a feeling of superiority. But as I mentioned before, we are not independent of Maisie. We cannot know things Maisie does not know, we can mostly only guess because we are more experienced in life than Maisie is.

She, for example, ignores facts about her parents and the other adults in the story and these narrative ellipses are not filled by the narrator. Actually, they cannot be filled because most of the time the narrator sticks to Maisie’s point of view and thus does not know more than she does. This leaves space for our own interpretation.

Often, Maisie is not able to interpret the things she hears from and about the adults. She tells Mrs. Wix some of these things and Mrs. Wix functions as an interpreter for Maisie. But she is not neutral because she has her own strange idea of morality and because she is in love with Sir Claude. Thus, the reader cannot totally believe her and he cannot be sure if he gets to know everything about the characters in the narrative.

Another thing that makes us feel superior to Maisie is the fact that we for example know how adult love affairs work. Obviously, the love affairs among the adults that surround Maisie are very important for the story. But we sometimes forget that we are not supplied with facts about these love affairs through the narrative.

We are so used to put fragments together in order to get a whole picture as well in literature as in real life that we also try to do this while reading What Maisie Knew. But we have to keep in mind that the gaps in Maisie’s knowledge leave space for other possible solutions than ours. This becomes especially obvious in Maisie’s “wonder”. “Wonder” is what Millicent Bell calls Maisie’s unformulated appreciation to the adults around her.

We cannot understand why Maisie keeps her positive attitude towards her parents. The narrator does not give us any hint about what the “goodness” of her parents means to Maisie. We can only feel irony when the parents claim goodness for themselves. When the gaps in Maisie’s knowledge close (this is when she grows up) in the end of the story she loses her positive opinion about the adults. “Maisie’s progress is from the ‘unseen’ centre to the ‘seen’ and ‘seeing’ observer”.

O’Neill is of the opinion that

“… the more perceptible the focalizer becomes, and thus the more easily graspable as a character, the more the reader will in turn feel authorized to question the focalizer’s vision.” 

Most of the time, the narrator in What Maisie Knew chooses to focalize the objects of focalization (mostly the adults around Maisie) through a character-focalizer (Maisie). The focalizer very obviously is Maisie most of the time. According to O’Neill, this would make us doubt Maisie’s perceptions. But since the narrator seems to be a trustworthy, sophisticated person we do not doubt what Maisie perceives!

Only occasionally it is necessary to change from internal (Maisie) to external (narrator) focalization. External focalization is mainly used in cases, in which the reader needs additional information to Maisie’s perceptions in order to understand what is going on.

This often happens so quickly that the reader does not realize it. This multiple focalization is a great potential for manipulation of the reader because he sometimes cannot clearly realize from which point of view the story is told.


I hope that I have shown that the narrator plays a major role in What Maisie Knew.

James’s use of the narrator is often praised by literary critics, especially because of the tension between the child and focalizer Maisie and the sophisticated narrator. Gordon Pirie calls this a “style that brilliantly gets round the limitation of restricting his narrative to the heroine’s point of view”.

One question I did not answer is the one concerning the identity of the narrator. I found out that we can assume that the narrator is a white upper-class male adult but a subject for another paper could be the question if narrator and real author might be identical.

Why cannot the narrator be Henry James himself? Have we been told a true story by a real person?


  1. James, Henry. What Maisie Knew. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1985.
  2. Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. 1980. Trans. Christine van Boheemen. Toronto: U of Toronto Pr, 1985.
  3. Bell, Millicent. Meaning in Henry James. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  4. Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1994.
  5. Hawthorne, Jeremy. A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. 2nd edition. London: Edward Arnold, 1994.
  6. Mitchell, Juliet. “What Maisie Knew: portrait of the artist as a young girl.” The Air of Reality. New Essays on Henry James. Ed. John Goode. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1972.
  7. O’Neill, Patrick. Fictions of Discourse: Reading Narrative Theory. Toronto: U of Toronto Pr, 1994.
  8. Peck, John and Martin Coyle. Literary Terms and Criticism. 2nd edition. London: MacMillan, 1993.
  9. Pirie, Gordon. Henry James. London: Evans Brothers Ltd., 1974.

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An Analysis of the Narrative of Henry James' What Masie Knew. (2021, Sep 23). Retrieved from

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