The Figure in the Carpet

tutorial, commentary, study resources, plot, and web links

The Figure in the Carpet (1896) is one of a number of stories James wrote in his later years which deal with issues of authorship, writing, and literary reputation. The tale has baffled critics ever since it first appeared. Some commentators claim that it’s a satire of literary criticism, others that it’s no more than a literary joke, and just a few readers claim that it is a profound exploration of literary hermeneutics – which is ‘the study of the interpretation of written texts’.

The Figure in the Carpet

The Figure in the Carpet

The Figure in the Carpet – critical commentary

The question of interpretation

It is generally agreed that The Figure in the Carpet is one of James’s more baffling stories. We naturally would like to know exactly what ‘secrets’ Vereker has embedded in his work, just as the narrator would. But he is thwarted in that hope, and so are we.

It’s possible to see the tale as a critique of literary criticism – since that is the narrator’s occupation. He sees Vereker’s work as a means of advancing his own reputation as a critic, and he views his friend Corvick and the latecomer Drayton Deane as threatening rivals.

In this approach to reading the story, James is taking revenge on lazy literary critics who are not prepared to study an author’s work in sufficient depth, but are only interested in advancing their own celebrity and careers. The narrator spends most of his efforts trying to extract the ‘secret’ from other people, instead of doing the work himself. At the end of the story he is no wiser, and the implication of this reading is that the literary joke is on him. This view can be supported by the initial ideas James recorded for the tale in his notebooks:

the lively impulse, at the root of it, to reinstate analytic appreciation, by some ironic or fantastic stroke, so far as possible, in its virtually forfeited rights and dignities.

In fact the ‘literary hoax’ interpretation could be taken even further if we posit the notion that Vereker, as an intelligent novelist, actually invents the idea of a hidden meaning in his work in order to tease the narrator.

The literary joke

Vereker makes an eloquent claim for the hidden meaning in his work, but he refuses to say what it is. The remainder of the story is focused on the narrator’s fruitless search for an answer to the mystery. This reading of the story sees the narrator as a gullible dupe.

First we might observe that Vereker’s claim is itself a fictional construct. There is no way a reader can know if it is true or not – because we have no examples of Vereker’s work with which to form a judgement. Covington’s subsequent claim to have discovered the secret is also part of the fiction. His word too is something whose veracity cannot be checked – even though the events of the text include Vereker’s apparent endorsement of Covington’s claim. The fact that two fictional characters might agree on the existence of a ‘secret meaning’ does not mean that such a meaning exists.

Those who wish to see the story as a literary joke might also observe that having apparently established the discovery of the hidden secret, the narrator is then tantalised, to an almost ridiculous extent, by his failure to drag the secret from the hands of those claiming to have grasped it.

In fact the very three people who claim to know the answer to the mystery (Vereker, Covington, and Gwendolen) all die in rapid succession, just as the narrator thinks he might learn the secret from them. He is left at the end of the story staring into the void, having also infected the hapless Drayton Deane with his belief in the mystery..

The face value interpretation

It is also possible to take the fictional claims made in the story at face value. Vereker claims his work has an ‘exquisite scheme’, but refuses to reveal it; and Covington claims to have discovered the secret, but dies before explaining what it is.

If we take this to be true, the story becomes a psychological study in the Narrator’s self-regard and egotism, which blinds him to the nature of events and the people with whom he is concerned.

Vereker warns him not to go off in pursuit of the ‘buried treasure’ in his work – “Give it up, give it up!” – to which the narrator responds by accusing him of being ‘a man of unstable moods’. If we follow the narrator’s comments closely, he reveals himself as a dubious judge who is also full of self-congratulation.

When Covington at first fails to uncover the ‘figure in the carpet’ the narrator observes ‘I considered I showed magnanimity in not reproaching him’. And when Covington goes to visit Vereker, he comments ‘We pictured the whole scene at Rapollo, where he would have written , mentioning my name, for permission to call’.

After spending more time with Gwendolen both before and after Covington’s death, he finds her much improved, ‘showing, I thought the better company she had kept’ (which can only be a reference to himself). Finally, he quite cynically contemplates the idea of marrying her just in the hope of gaining access to the mystery, which he thinks might be transmitted naturally enough from husband to wife. But he is so far detached from the emotional sphere of human relations, he speculates on Covington revealing the literary mystery to Gwendolen, and wonders ‘For what else but that ceremony had the nuptials taken place?’.

The narrator is left at the end of the story with no resolution to the mystery, and more importantly no further insight into himself and the limitations of his sensibility. This is a satirical version of the outcome of stories such as The Beast in the Jungle in which a narrator blinded by egoism realises that his life has been futile.

Story or tale?

Very few of James’s stories are short by modern standards, and the fact is that he called them tales, not stories. But as short fictions, they are usually judged by the same criteria as most stories – from Edgar Allen Poe to Maupassant, Checkhov, Joyce, and Woolf.

Poe suggested that a short story is something that can be read at one sitting, and that all its interest is focused onto a single issue. To these unities there have since been added unity of theme, time, imagery, place, character. In other words, short stories are at their best when they are as concentrated and unified as possible.

It could be argued that The Figure in the Carpet certainly focuses attention on one issue – the pursuit of a mystery – and has one principal character – the narrator. But these features are overwhelmed by something of a superfluity of incident. The story contains two marriages and no less than four deaths, on all of which the narrative depends – which is too much for even a short tale to bear.

It also has a singular lack of geographic unity. The story moves from London to Bombay, then on to Munich, Rapallo, and Meran before returning to London. It is certainly something of a mystery, but not a carefully unified whole.

The Figure in the Carpet – study resources

The Figure in the Carpet The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Figure in the Carpet The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Figure in the Carpet Complete Stories 1892—1898 – Library of America – Amazon UK

The Figure in the Carpet Complete Stories 1892—1898 – Library of America – Amazon US

The Figure in the Carpet The Figure in the Carpet – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon UK

The Figure in the Carpet The Figure in the Carpet – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon US

The Figure in the Carpet The Figure in the Carpet – Penguin Classics edition – Amazon UK

The Figure in the Carpet The Figure in the Carpet – Penguin Classics edition – Amazon US

Red button The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle eBook edition

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

The Figure in the Carpet The Figure in the Carpet – audio book

The Figure in the Carpet The Figure in the Carpet – eBook formats at Project Gutenberg

Henry James portrait

Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant

The Figure in the Carpet – plot summary

An un-named literary critic feels he has successfully reviewed the latest work of Hugh Vereker, a distinguished novelist. But when he meets the author in person at a social event, Vereker tells him that whilst the review is intelligent, he has missed the hidden underlying issue which informs all of his writing. The narrator presses him to reveal the nature of this mystery, but Vereker refuses, claiming that it will be self-evident in any close reading of his work.

The narrator enlists the support of his friend, the writer George Corvick, in the search for this hidden key. The hunt also entails novelist Gwendolen Erme, to whom Corvick is engaged but whose mother is opposed to the match. None of them succeeds in uncovering the secret pattern, but when Corvick goes to India with a commission for journalistic work, he writes back to announce that he has discovered the secret.

When pressed for information, he says he will only reveal the secret after he has married Gwendolen. He then visits Vereker in Italy on his way back to London, and we are given every reason to believe that Vereker confirms Corvick’s solution to the mystery. Corvick then begins to write the definitive interpretation of Vereker’s works.

Gwendolen’s mother dies, and Corvick’s wedding takes place, but he is killed in an accident on his honeymoon. When the narrator appeals to his widow for the key to the mystery, she refuses to divulge anything. It transpires that Corvick’s study of Vereker’s work is no more than a few introductory pages which reveal nothing.

The narrator is so sure that Corvick will have revealed the secret to Gwendolen that he contemplates marrying her to get at the information, but she meanwhile publishes another book and marries fellow novelist Drayton Deane, who the narrator perceives as a literary and social rival. But Gwendolen then dies in childbirth, leaving the narrator to appeal to Drayton Deane, asking if she has passed on to him the key to the mystery. She has not, and they are both left to contemplate the fact that they will never find it.

Principal characters

I the un-named narrator, who is a literary critic
George Corvick his friend, an author
Gwendolen Erme a novelist, ‘engaged’ to Corvick
Lady Jane a society hostess
Bridges her country house
Hugh Vereker a distinguished author
The Middle a literary magazine
Drayton Deane a novelist who marries Gwendolen

Henry James's study

Henry James’s study

Further reading


Red button Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Red button F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Red button Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1985.

Red button Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.

Red button Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.

Red button Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Red button F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Critical commentary

Red button Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Red button Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.

Red button Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.

Red button Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.

Red button J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

Red button Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.

Red button Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Red button Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976

Red button Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.

Red button Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.

Red button Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Red button Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Red button Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Red button John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Red button Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Red button Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Red button Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Red button Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.

Other works by Henry James

Henry James Washington SquareWashington Square (1880) is a superb early short novel, It’s the tale of a young girl whose future happiness is being controlled by her strict authoritarian (but rather witty) father. She is rather reserved, but has a handsome young suitor. However, her father disapproves of him, seeing him as an opportunist and a fortune hunter. There is a battle of wills – all conducted within the confines of their elegant New York town house. Who wins out in the end? You will probably be surprised by the outcome. This is a masterpiece of social commentary, offering a sensitive picture of a young woman’s life.
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James The Aspern PapersThe Aspern Papers (1888) is a psychological drama set in Venice which centres on the tussle for control of a great writer’s correspondence. An elderly lady, ex-lover of the writer, seeks a husband for her daughter. But the potential purchaser of the papers is a dedicated bachelor. Money is also at stake – but of course not discussed overtly. There is a refined battle of wills between them. Who will win in the end? As usual, James keeps the reader guessing. The novella is a masterpiece of subtle narration, with an ironic twist in its outcome. This collection of stories also includes three of his accomplished long short stories – The Private Life, The Middle Years, and The Death of the Lion.
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James The Spoils of PoyntonThe Spoils of Poynton (1896) is a short novel which centres on the contents of a country house, and the question of who is the most desirable person to inherit it via marriage. The owner Mrs Gereth is being forced to leave her home to make way for her son and his greedy and uncultured fiancee. Mrs Gereth develops a subtle plan to take as many of the house’s priceless furnishings with her as possible. But things do not go quite according to plan. There are some very witty social ironies, and a contest of wills which matches nouveau-riche greed against high principles. There’s also a spectacular finale in which nobody wins out.
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon US

Henry James – web links

Henry James  web links Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.

Henry James web links The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.

Henry James web links The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Red button A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.

Henry James web links The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.

Henry James web links Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.

Henry James web links Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.

Henry James web links The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Henry James web links The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.

Henry James web links Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.

&copy Roy Johnson 2012

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One Response to “The Figure in the Carpet”

  1. […] nuance-intensive shadow-and-light image — the mysterious Aspern papers, the golden bowl, the elusive figure in the Persian carpet — was central to James’s fiction, so were the lives of artists and writers he knew. The Morgan […]

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