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Henry James' "Pandora"

"You Germans are always in such awe of great people," says Pandora to her companion, Count Vogelstein during a visit to Mount Vernon.1 Pandora is the eponymous heroine of Henry James's story about the rise of the "American Girl" after the Civil War.2 By "great people," Pandora means George Washington, a figure she highly reveres, though in a relaxed fashion. Her German friend is slowly warming up to the relaxed and personable way that Americans think of their leaders.

The story "Pandora" was released in 1884, about five years after Henry James's well-known novella Daisy Miller.3 Both Pandora and Daisy Miller are described as dangerously charming and free-willed. However, unlike Daisy Miller, who spends her last days in Rome, when we meet Pandora she has finished her travels in Europe and is on her way back to a life in America. Possessing both quick-minded ambition and genuine admiration for her country, Pandora embodies the revived optimism of the American spirit after the Civil War—unlike Daisy Miller, she rises and succeeds, both in society and in marriage.

The main events in "Pandora" take place along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and the story's climactic scene occurs at Mount Vernon. These settings serve as more than a backdrop in the story; they also provide an environment where an American young woman and a German emissary can share their very different cultural, political, and personal values.

Prior to this visit to Mount Vernon, Vogelstein had quietly disapproved of the lack of sophistication and grandeur in American architecture, contrasting American design to the much more opulent homes of the German Kaiser. Pandora, on the other hand, finds the buildings in Washington, D.C. to be elegant. James writes: "She thought the Capitol very fine; it was easy to criticize the details, but as a whole it was the most impressive building she had ever seen."4

View a larger version of "Washington's Mansion," postcard, 1910.

Vogelstein initially finds the Mount Vernon mansion "gemutlich," cutely diminutive. But over the course of his visit, he discovers beauty in George Washington's comparatively modest estate. This shift in perception is best expressed by the following description of the mansion, which is simultaneously a description of Vogelstein's growing appreciation for Pandora's independent spirit:

It occurred to [Vogelstein] that perhaps after all Washington would have liked [Pandora's] manner, which was wonderfully fresh and natural. . . . Our interesting couple had the house to themselves, and they spent some time on a pretty terrace where certain windows of the second floor opened—a little rootless verandah which overhung, in a manner, obliquely, all the magnificence of the view; the immense sweep of the river, the artistic plantations, the last-century garden with its big box hedges and remains of old espaliers. They lingered here for nearly half an hour, and it was in this retirement that Vogelstein enjoyed the only approach to intimate conversation appointed for him, as was to appear, with a young woman in whom he had been unable to persuade himself that he was not absorbed.5

Nelly Lambert
Catholic University

Notes
1. Henry James,"Pandora" in The Best Short Stories and Novellas (Stilwell, KS: Digireads.com Publishing, 2008)

2. "American Girl" is one of James's phrases for the young woman who is self-made, independent, and socially ambitious. He also calls her the "new type" and the "self-made girl." A passage at the start of Chapter II contains the best description of these details, see "Pandora,"152-153.

3. Daisy Miller was written in 1878 and first released in 1879.

4. James, 155.

5. Ibid., 157-58.

Links
Text of "Pandora"