What can Maisie know in literature and film? The role of knowledge in Henry James’s novel "What Maisie knew"

Essay, 2015

8 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Henry James’s novel depicts the story of a six-year old child that is involved into the problem of complicated parental relationships. It deals with the theme of a“dysfunctional family“and the egoistical abuse and neglect of a child. Whereas these themes seem to be obvious and determining for the novel, there is one topic that solely appears on closer observation. This mentioned topic is concerned with knowledge and intelligence, especially with that of the novel’s protagonist Maisie. Indeed, the novel’s title indirectly comprises the relevance of knowledge, alone because the reader wants to find out what Maisie knows. However, the topic seems to recede into the background. On closer inspection it becomes obvious that knowledge and gaining insight run like a thread through the entire novel. This essay analyses the role of knowledge in Henry James’s novel “What Maisie knew“ and Siegel’s and McGehee’s film of the same title. Furthermore, it tries to answer the question what role Maisie’s knowledge plays in novel and film. After defining the term“knowledge“this essay proceeds with applying the definitions to James’s heroine Maisie. Furthermore, it analyses the different types of knowledge that play a role in James’s novel and the circumstances that have an impact on Maisie’s knowledge. Given the fact that Siegel’s and McGehee’s film represent an adaption of James’s novel, the importance of knowledge in the film will be analyzed in the essay’s final section as well. It concludes in saying that knowledge is important for the young heroine’s development and her way towards maturity. Whilst knowledge and Maisie’s insights have a great impact on the course of the novel, McGehee’s and Siegel’s film emphasizes the consequences of bad parenting.

As already indicated, knowledge and gaining insight play a significant role, not only for the novel itself, but especially for Maisie’s development. Before analyzing Maisie’s knowledge and the steps leading her towards this knowledge, it seems necessary to first define the term. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the term knowledge in different kinds of categories and differentiates between various forms. The most evident and comprehensible definition says that knowledge contains all facts, information or skills that can be acquired through experience or education[1]. Furthermore, the OED defines knowledge as“the fact or state of knowing that something is the case[2]. This means“the condition of being aware or cognizant of a fact or state of affairs ( … )[3]. Knowledge may also describe the faculty of understanding what includes that a person has a theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. This definition is also the reason for the term’s association with intelligence. Finally, knowledge may be defined as“the sum of what is known “or“the possession of information about something[4]. In this context, a connection to Henry James’s novel and its protagonist Maisie can be drawn. The novel namely distinguishes between different kinds of knowledge as well. The first remark relates to the fact that various characters comment throughout the novel on Maisie’s lacks of formal education. Therefore, it might be expected that Maisie is not educated or has little intelligence. But having the other definitions of knowledge in mind, it becomes obvious that Maisie might be in possession of much information and secrets about the adults around her. She becomes aware of the adult’s sordid relationships and observes them with an ever growing understanding. Thus, it becomes clear that the novel also deals with different categories of knowledge. Henry James’s story considers knowledge , and especially Maisie’s knowledge, less in regards to intelligence. Maisie rather acquires knowledge in terms of experience, life lessons, behavior and attitudes. She learns about the adults’ corruption and selfishness by observing them and their behavior. Knowledge is not only about learning or having a theoretical understanding of a subject but also about acquiring strategies for life. This is exactly what Maisie does. Early in the novel, Maisie figures out that her parents use her to torment one another. As soon as she realizes the real motive of each parent’s inquiries concerning the other, she develops a specific type of behavior. One of the first things she acquires is the strategy of selective ignorance and simulated stupidity[5]. Whereas the former strategy describes Maisie’s discovery to be quiet in certain situations, the latter proves to be decisive for her understanding of her social environment. She learns how to use the strategies and enjoys them: “She would forget everything, she would repeat nothing, and when, as a tribute to the successful application of her system, she began to be called a little idiot, she tasted a pleasure new and keen.“[6] The adults around her often mistake her silence as stupidity and start to speak freely around her. For that reason, Maisie obtains scandalous information with the help of blunt and insightful questions which are normally considered inappropriate: “( … ) Maisie, receptive and profound, suddenly said to her companion:“And you, my dear, are you in love with him too?“Even her profundity had left a margin for a laugh; ( … )“[7] . These strategies prove to be a useful instrument for Maisie and mark an important stage in her development. Her vow of silence gives Maisie an immense amount of power and let her be superior to the adults.

As already indicated, knowledge is not only about receiving education or acquiring strategies, but also about understanding and interpreting particular situations. Maisie learns to interpret situations in the course of the novel and understands unspoken truths. She recognizes for instance that she, Mrs. Wix and Miss Overmore all share an affection for Sir Claude. Even though it is not explicitly mentioned in the beginning, Maisie also feels that there is tension between her both governesses. This feeling proves to be true in the course of the novel and peaks at the end when Mrs. Wix and Miss Overmore fight over Maisie: “Mrs. Beale ’ s flush had dropped; she had turned pale with a splendid wrath. She kept protesting and dismissing Mrs. Wix; ( … )“[8] . Her acquired ability to interpret situations and to draw conclusions from this knowledge provide a special consciousness. This consciousness is not only important for Maisie herself, but also for Henry James and the reader. His preface to the novel emphasizes Maisie’s consciousness that should guide the reader to the novel’s meaning. James describes his heroine as endowed with an“expanding consciousness“[9] that expands to self-understanding and moral awareness. Maisie gradually learns what is important in life by observing the events and adults around her. She seems to develop a sensibility for assessing situations. Even though she is entirely passive throughout the novel, Maisie seems to be aware of what happens around her. This assumption is reinforced by James’s narrative style. From the opening pages, James merges the voice and the perspective of the author with that of the young protagonist. He informs the reader about every new development in Maisie’s consciousness. He merges deep into her soul by detailing every significant and minute shift in Maisie’s understanding of herself and her surroundings. Only the words he uses for Maisie’s perceptions seem not to be a part of a child’s vocabulary[10]. Therefore, the young heroine often seems to be precocious compared to other children her age[11]. Precocity might also be a form of knowledge and plays a role in James’s novel.


[1] „knowledge, n.“ OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 11 January 2015.

[2] ibid.

[3] „knowledge, n.“OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 11 January 2015.

[4] ibid.

[5] Honeyman, Susan E., (2001), p. 69.

[6] James, Henry:“What Maisie knew“, p. 18

[7] ibid. p. 105.

[8] James, Henry: What Maisie knew, p. 510.

[9] http://www.henryjames.org.uk/prefaces/home.htm (23.01.15)

[10] http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jun/13/what-maisie-doesnt-know/ (25.01.2015)

[11] Brebner, Adele: (1956), p. 283.

Excerpt out of 8 pages


What can Maisie know in literature and film? The role of knowledge in Henry James’s novel "What Maisie knew"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für Englisch- und Amerikastudien)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
517 KB
what, maisie, henry, james’s
Quote paper
Carina Kaufmann (Author), 2015, What can Maisie know in literature and film? The role of knowledge in Henry James’s novel "What Maisie knew", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/303872


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: What can Maisie know in literature and film? The role of knowledge in Henry James’s novel "What Maisie knew"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free