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The Sacred Fount

The Sacred Fount

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The Sacred Fount is a novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

 by Henry James
Henry James
Henry James, OM was an American-born writer, regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He was the son of Henry James, Sr., a clergyman, and the brother of philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James....

, first published in 1901. This strange, often baffling book concerns an unnamed narrator
A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...

 who attempts to discover the truth about the love lives of his fellow-guests at a weekend party in the English
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 countryside. He spurns the "detective
A detective is an investigator, either a member of a police agency or a private person. The latter may be known as private investigators or "private eyes"...

 and keyhole" methods as ignoble, and instead tries to decipher these relationships purely from the behavior
Human behavior
Human behavior refers to the range of behaviors exhibited by humans and which are influenced by culture, attitudes, emotions, values, ethics, authority, rapport, hypnosis, persuasion, coercion and/or genetics....

 and appearance of each guest. He expends huge resources of energy and ingenuity on his theories, much to the bemusement of some people at the party.

Plot summary

As he waits for the train to take him to a weekend party in the country, the narrator notices that Gilbert Long seems much more assured and lively than before. He also sees Mrs. Brissenden (nicknamed "Mrs. Briss") as much younger-looking
Youth is the time of life between childhood and adulthood . Definitions of the specific age range that constitutes youth vary. An individual's actual maturity may not correspond to their chronological age, as immature individuals could exist at all ages.-Usage:Around the world, the terms "youth",...

 than her husband, though she's actually ten years older. The narrator begins to theorize that Long and Mrs. Briss are getting their vitality, vampire-like, from the "sacred fount" of their sexual partners'
Human sexuality
Human sexuality is the awareness of gender differences, and the capacity to have erotic experiences and responses. Human sexuality can also be described as the way someone is sexually attracted to another person whether it is to opposite sexes , to the same sex , to either sexes , or not being...

 energy. At first the narrator theorizes that the source of Long's newfound assurance and intelligence is a certain Lady John.

Later he changes his mind, as he constantly discusses his ideas with others at the party, particularly an artist, Ford Obert. The narrator notices that another woman at the party, May Server, seems listless and starts to wonder if she may be the lover providing vitality to Long. Eventually the narrator begins to construct enormously elaborate theories
The English word theory was derived from a technical term in Ancient Greek philosophy. The word theoria, , meant "a looking at, viewing, beholding", and referring to contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action...

 of who is taking vitality from whom, and whether some people are acting as screens for the real lovers. In a long midnight confrontation with Mrs. Briss which concludes the novel, she says that the narrator's theories are ridiculous, and that he has completely misread the actual relationships of their fellow guests. She finishes by telling him he's crazy
Insanity, craziness or madness is a spectrum of behaviors characterized by certain abnormal mental or behavioral patterns. Insanity may manifest as violations of societal norms, including becoming a danger to themselves and others, though not all such acts are considered insanity...

, and that last word leaves the narrator dismayed and overwhelmed.

Key themes

While the narrator is often exasperating about his rather prurient interest in his fellow-guests' sex lives, he does seem similar to other central characters in James' fiction who try to discover the truth
Truth has a variety of meanings, such as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. It can also mean having fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal. In a common usage, it also means constancy or sincerity in action or character...

 from often misleading bits of information
Information in its most restricted technical sense is a message or collection of messages that consists of an ordered sequence of symbols, or it is the meaning that can be interpreted from such a message or collection of messages. Information can be recorded or transmitted. It can be recorded as...

. But after a while his theories begin to drive everybody, including the reader, a little nuts, as those theories constantly shift and grow incredibly complex.

So when Mrs. Briss dismisses the narrator as crazy, she might gain some sympathy from many readers. Of course, it's possible that Mrs. Briss is only trying to fool the narrator to conceal her own love affairs. Nothing is certain in this novel of shifting appearances, endless theories, and no final revelation of the truth.

The Sacred Fount has been seen as everything from a serious discussion of the "vampire
Vampires are mythological or folkloric beings who subsist by feeding on the life essence of living creatures, regardless of whether they are undead or a living person...

" theory of human sexuality to a parody/treatment of the artist's
An artist is a person engaged in one or more of any of a broad spectrum of activities related to creating art, practicing the arts and/or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only...

 construction of an alternative and more profound reality
In philosophy, reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. In a wider definition, reality includes everything that is and has been, whether or not it is observable or comprehensible...

. But many have expressed simple bewilderment over what, if anything, James was trying to accomplish in the novel. James himself said that the book was "calculated to minister to curiosity
Curiosity is an emotion related to natural inquisitive behavior such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation in human and many animal species. The term can also be used to denote the behavior itself being caused by the emotion of curiosity...

," but many have maintained that the novel does little or nothing to reward that curiosity.

Critical evaluation

Early critic
A critic is anyone who expresses a value judgement. Informally, criticism is a common aspect of all human expression and need not necessarily imply skilled or accurate expressions of judgement. Critical judgements, good or bad, may be positive , negative , or balanced...

s treated the novel with blank incomprehension or near-contempt. Rebecca West
Rebecca West
Cicely Isabel Fairfield , known by her pen name Rebecca West, or Dame Rebecca West, DBE was an English author, journalist, literary critic and travel writer. A prolific, protean author who wrote in many genres, West was committed to feminist and liberal principles and was one of the foremost public...

 issued one her wittiest sneers when she wrote that the narrator "spends more intellectual force than Kant
KANT is a computer algebra system for mathematicians interested in algebraic number theory, performing sophisticated computations in algebraic number fields, in global function fields, and in local fields. KASH is the associated command line interface...

 can have used on The Critique of Pure Reason in an unsuccessful attempt to discover whether there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people than it is among sparrows."

With that devastating dismissal ringing down through the decades, The Sacred Fount has not enjoyed a good press. Many critics have thrown up their hands over what one early reviewer called a "brilliantly stupid
Stupidity is a lack of intelligence, understanding, reason, wit, or sense. It may be innate, assumed, or reactive - 'being "stupid with grief" as a defence against trauma', a state marked with 'grief and despair...making even simple daily tasks a hardship'....

 piece of work." James himself omitted the book from the New York Edition
New York Edition
The New York Edition of Henry James' fiction was a 24-volume collection of the Anglo-American writer's novels, novellas and short stories, originally published in the U.S. and the UK in 1907-1909, with a photogravure frontispiece for each volume by Alvin Langdon Coburn...

(1907-1909) of his fiction, one of the very few later novels not to make the grade. Indeed in a letter dated March 15th 1901 to Mrs Humphry Ward James declared 'I say it in all sincerity – the book isn't worth discussing [...] I hatingly finished it; trying to make it – the one thing it could be – a consistent joke.' (The other exclusion among the later novels was The Other House
The Other House
The Other House is a novel by Henry James, first published as a serial in the Illustrated London News in 1896 and then as a book later the same year. Set in England, this book is something of an oddity in the Jamesian canon for its plot revolving around a murder. The novel was originally planned...

(1896). The Outcry
The Outcry
The Outcry is a novel by Henry James published in 1911. This light comedy was originally conceived as a play. James cast the material in a three-act drama in 1909, but like so many of his plays, it failed to be produced. In 1911 James converted the play into a novel, which was successful with the...

(1910) was published too late to make the edition.)

But as time has passed and more peculiar works of art have gained acceptance, some critics have started to praise The Sacred Fount as a parable of how people shape appearances into an explanation of an impossibly complex world. The book's preoccupation with the "vampire" theory, though, has continued to evoke occasional ridicule and little serious interest.

The critical literature on the book keeps piling up due to the novel's mystery and lack of a final resolution. Connections have been made to other works by James, particularly The Turn of the Screw
The Turn of the Screw
The Turn of the Screw is a novella written by Henry James. Originally published in 1898, it is ostensibly a ghost story.Due to its ambiguous content, it became a favourite text of academics who subscribe to New Criticism. The novella has had differing interpretations, often mutually exclusive...

and In the Cage
In the Cage
"In the Cage" is also a song by progressive rock group Genesis off their 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.In the Cage is a novella by Henry James, first published as a book in 1898. This long story centers on an unnamed London telegraphist...

, which also feature unnamed and imaginative protagonists.

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