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The Golden Bowl

Henry James
Plot Summary

The Golden Bowl

Henry James

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1904

Plot Summary
The Golden Bowl is a 1904 novel by American-British author Henry James. Set in England, it explores a series of complicated entanglements that form between a father, Adam Verver, his daughter, Maggie, and each of their spouses. One of the first novels considered to belong in the modernist literary genre, The Golden Bowl penetrates deeply into the psyches of its main characters, often detailing their innermost thoughts almost to the point of absurdity. James borrowed the book’s title from a verse in Ecclesiastes 12 that depicts a cracked golden bowl as a metaphor for the inevitable decay or destruction of all beautiful things.

The novel begins as a poor but well-liked Italian nobleman, Prince Amerigo, visits London to wed his fiancée, Maggie Verver. Maggie’s father, Adam Verver, is a wealthy widow who hails from America and owns a fabulous art collection. In London, Prince Amerigo runs into his old American lover, Charlotte Stant, whom he had once met in Rome in the drawing room of a mutual friend, Mrs. Assingham. Prince Amerigo decided not to marry Charlotte partly because she is not rich. Charlotte and Maggie have been good friends since they were children, but Maggie knows nothing of Prince Amerigo’s past relationship with Charlotte. Amerigo and Charlotte go out to look for a wedding gift for Maggie. They find an odd store, where the clerk selects for them an antique crystal bowl embellished with gold. The Prince believes that the bowl, for its price, must be flawed, and declines it.

Maggie marries Prince Amerigo. Soon, she begins to worry that her marriage has alienated her father since they used to spend a lot of time together. She convinces him to ask for Charlotte’s hand in marriage. Charlotte accepts his proposal. At the wedding, Maggie and her father are immersed in a conversation in which they display their familial love for each other, and Amerigo and Charlotte end up together in private. They leave the wedding and begin an adulterous relationship.



Maggie soon picks up on Amerigo and Charlotte’s affair but has no hard evidence to prove it. One day, she goes by chance to store where the clerk offered Amerigo the gilded bowl and buys it. The clerk overcharges her for the artifact, is overcome with guilt, and tries to visit her to confess. At Maggie’s house, he sees several photos of Charlotte and Amerigo. He explains to Maggie that he saw them shopping on the evening before her wedding, and claims that they seemed in love as they spoke to each other in Italian.

Maggie approaches Amerigo and questions him about his relationship with Charlotte. She decides to try to drive them apart without telling her father about their affair or telling Charlotte that she knows about it. Over the course of several months, she convinces her father to return to America with his new wife. Her diplomacy impresses the Prince, who had previously thought of Maggie as a naive girl and the epitome of American ignorance. At last, he falls in love with her. As the novel concludes, Charlotte and Adam Verver leave for America. Amerigo professes his love for Maggie, declaring that he can see no one other than her in his future, and they embrace. The Golden Bowl contrasts quick and lustful love with a love that is learned and actively renewed, suggesting that, though both will ultimately fade, the latter will always outlast the former.

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