International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Trauma and World Literature

Posted 27 May 2015 in StressPoints by Harold Kudler, MD

AOSW
No two brothers have made a deeper imprint on the American psyche than William and Henry James. Some credit for their success must belong to their father, Henry James Sr., a Swedenborgian theologian with the financial resources and social standing needed to educate his children (who also included the diarist, Alice James) in America and in Europe and introduce them to the intellectual leaders of both continents.

William, who trained as a physician, became a prominent philosopher and the father of American Psychology. Alice is best known for her posthumously published journal of her struggles with hysteria and terminal cancer. Henry went on to become one of America's greatest authors whose stream of consciousness short stories and novels helped define modern literature.

The following passage is from what may be James' finest novel, The Wings of the Dove (1902). It describes the first encounter between the book's heroine, Milly Theale, and her doctor, Sir Luke Strett. Milly is the sole survivor of a large and affluent family who has inherited their doom along with their wealth. She has sought out Sir Luke to confirm what she already expects: a death sentence.
 
The impression—all the sharp growth of the final few moments—was neither more nor less than that she might make, of a sudden, in quite another world, another straight friend, and a friend who would moreover be, wonderfully, the most appointed, the most thoroughly adjusted of the whole collection, inasmuch as he would somehow wear the character scientifically, ponderably, proveably—not just loosely and sociably. Literally, furthermore, it wouldn't really depend on herself, Sir Luke Strett's friendship, in the least; perhaps what made her most stammer and pant was its thus queerly coming over her that she might find she had interested him even beyond her intention, find she was in fact launched in some current that would lose itself in the sea of science. At the same time that she struggled, however, she also surrendered; there was a moment at which she almost dropped the form of stating, of explaining, and threw herself, without violence, only with a supreme pointless quaver that had turned, the next instant, to an intensity of interrogative stillness, upon his general goodwill. His large, settled face, though firm, was not, as she had thought at first, hard; he looked, in the oddest manner, to her fancy, half like a general and half like a bishop, and she was soon sure that, within some such handsome range, what it would show her would be what was good, what was best for her. She had established, in other words, in this time-saving way, a relation with it; and the relation was the special trophy that, for the hour, she bore off. It was like an absolute possession, a new resource altogether, something done up in the softest silk and tucked away under the arm of memory. She hadn't had it when she went in, and she had it when she came out; she had it there under her cloak, but dissimulated, invisibly carried, when smiling, smiling, she again faced Kate Croy. That young lady had of course awaited her in another room, where, as the great man was to absent himself, no one else was in attendance; and she rose for her with such a face of sympathy as might have graced the vestibule of a dentist. "Is it out?" she seemed to ask as if it had been a question of a tooth; and Milly indeed kept her in no suspense at all.

"He's a dear. I'm to come again."

"But what does he say?"

Milly was almost gay. "That I'm not to worry about anything in the world, and that if I'll be a good girl and do exactly what he tells me, he'll take care of me for ever and ever."

Kate wondered as if things scarce fitted. "But does he allow then that you're ill?"

"I don't know what he allows, and I don't care. I shall know, and whatever it is it will be enough. He knows all about me, and I like it. I don't hate it a bit.”

Much has been said about the repetitive themes of dying young women (not to mention hauntings) in the works of Henry James. In particular, the names of some of James' most poignant characters including Daisy Miller (from the novella of the same name) and Milly Theale, bear strong resemblance to that of Minnie Temple, James' beloved cousin who died at age 24. But regardless of speculation about its roots, modern therapists will find value in this depiction of how a young patient on the verge of receiving a traumatic truth finds strength and a way forward through her relationship with her new clinician.

Excerpt From: James, Henry. “The Wings of the Dove, Volume 1 of 2.” pp. 370-373, iBooks. You may access this book on the iBooks Store where it is available free of charge.