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The Golden Bowl was Henry James’ final novel—and it remains the most morally challenging of his tales. The 1904 book tells the story of an American heiress named Maggie Verver who marries Amerigo, an Italian prince. But she is deceived about Amerigo’s past love affair with Charlotte Stant, who later marries Maggie’s father, Adam, a wealthy art collector.

In the first half of the novel, Maggie doesn’t really know her husband. She knows his family’s history, and, like other Jamesian characters, equates nobility of family with a nobility of character (the romantic illusions of Americans about Europeans recur in James). So naive are Maggie and her father that they don’t see that Maggie’s marriage means that she must place her husband before her father; in their illusions and blindness, they arrange things so that Prince Amerigo and Charlotte have ample opportunity to resume their affair. “Stupidity pushed to a certain point is immorality,” Fanny Assingham, the characters’ confidante, tells her husband. Charlotte, too, criticizes Maggie’s blind niceness: She relies too much on her own decency, Charlotte complains, “and nobody is decent enough—not without help from religion . . . not without prayer and fasting.”

The novel is a masterpiece of multiple perspectives. The second half takes place largely in the consciousness of Maggie: Innocent Maggie perceives that something has happened and faces “the horror of finding evil seated, all at its ease, where she had only dreamed of good; the horror of the thing hideously behind, behind so much trusted, so much pretended, nobleness, cleverness, tenderness. It was the first sharp falsity she had known in her life.”

In the crucial scene, Maggie watches the others playing cards—on the surface, a peaceful social setting but, underneath, one in which she sees her dilemma clearly: “the fact of her father’s wife’s lover facing his mistress; the fact of her father sitting, all unsounded and unblinking, between them.” She “might sound out their doom by a single sentence,” but, no, Maggie sees herself—who she is, what she must do—in terms of her relation to the others: as “her husband’s wife . . . her father’s daughter.” On that basis, she will assume the burden tacitly placed on her by the group and be like “the scapegoat of old . . . charged with the sins of the people [to go] forth into the desert to sink under his burden and die.” Maggie tells Charlotte, “I’ve never thought of you but as beautiful, wonderful and good.” And, eventually, Charlotte is constrained to be as good as Maggie says she is; she asks her husband to leave London for America, leaving Maggie with Amerigo.

The prince is surprised by his wife’s handling of the situation; she’s smarter than he thought. Charlotte, conversely, is “stupid,” as he puts it, for not seeing how much Maggie knows; “she doesn’t really know you at all,” he tells his wife. Maggie triumphs over Charlotte by “grovelling” to her; between Maggie and Amerigo “there occurred a kind of unprecedented moral exchange over which [Maggie’s] superior lucidity presided.” Maggie has grown from a “small creeping thing” to a real princess and, as such, can assure her father, before he leaves for America, ever innocent of his cuckoldom: “Charlotte’s great!” By her forbearance and “superior lucidity,” Maggie has terminated the adultery and enabled her father to really “get” a wife and herself to win a prince.

To love in James is to engage fully another’s consciousness: his perceptions, memories, valuations, dreams, fears. “Ours was everything a relation could be, filled to the brim with the wine of consciousness,” Maggie hears Charlotte pleading about her love of Amerigo. But, because of Maggie’s handling of the situation, the “golden flame” of the adulterers’ love turns out to be “a mere handful of black ashes.” Maggie has won the battle of consciousnesses and captured her prince. And, through her initiation into knowledge of good and evil, the princess now knows her husband—knows his “personal quantity,” about which (as he warned her) she earlier knew nothing. The princess also now knows what the prince knows and shares with her: “Everything’s terrible, cara—in the heart of man.” Not to see the other; not to know the other; not to drink in all that the other is; not to see with the other, through the other’s eyes and heart—all this is not to love.

Although James’ plots often concern deception and the dashing of illusion, no other writer has such high hopes for the spiritual communion possible between a man and a woman. “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth,” concludes Ecclesiastes, the source of the novel’s title, before “the golden bowl be broken,” when “the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” In James’ novel, the golden bowl is an emblem of our hope for a perfect union of human consciousnesses in love. And yet, the bowl has a crack in it, for the perfect union is impossible in a flawed world. In the end, the novel points upward to an unseen ideal form of the visible good and the communion of souls.

Critics have disagreed over whether James successfully pulls off the novel’s comedic ending, in which the couples are reconnected and the social order affirmed. Some have called the novel “decadent” and “morally absurd,” noting that it is set in a “spiritually unregenerate” and “ethically decentered” world in which “marriage, like religion, is basically an empty form” and “conventional moral standards of any description have become irrelevant.”

Such comments largely misunderstand James’ project. In the landmark 1981 study After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points to the influence of what he calls emotivism—a moral perspective that was first adopted by certain rich Europeans and Europeanized Americans in James’ day, though it now, MacIntyre argues, largely rules Western civilization. Emotivism is “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and, more specifically, all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” Like relativism, its close kin, emotivism posits no absolute moral standards.

MacIntyre traces the origins of emotivism as a self-conscious movement to 1903, when the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore published Principia Ethica. Leonard Woolf, J. M. Keynes, and others who would later come to be called the Bloomsbury Circle eagerly latched onto the book as an affirmation of their desire “to reject . . . all claims except those of personal intercourse and of the beautiful.” In the emotivist scheme, “others are always means, never ends.” The social world is “nothing but a meeting place for individual wills” in which a person attempts to align others’ “attitudes, feelings, preferences, and choices” to his own: “The distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relationships has been obliterated,” and questions of sincerity and authenticity are set aside.

James depicts such a moral world in The Golden Bowl, although in nearly all his works he is even more interested in the dialogue between moral perspectives and cultures—between, for example, the naive, romanticizing American and the wealthy (or would-be-wealthy) aesthete who interprets “reality as a series of opportunities for enjoyment and for whom the last enemy is boredom,” as MacIntyre writes about James’ characters. In Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Wings of the Dove (1902), and The Golden Bowl, men of modest means deceive wealthy women to win their worldly riches. Gilbert Osmond, the Europeanized American aesthete of Portrait of a Lady, is by far the darkest; he shows “what it means to be a consumer of persons,” as MacIntyre writes.

But there is another voice in James: that of the narrowly moralizing New England Puritan so vividly depicted by James’ spiritual forebear Nathaniel Hawthorne. This is the voice that recognizes the existence of evil, insists on moral absolutes, upholds social conventions (above all, marriage), and prides itself on its purity. It can be merely philistine (as with Mrs. Newsome in The Ambassadors), but it almost always adds to the measure of the truth of the circumstances. James leaves it to the reader to mediate between the voices, to supply what is needed. He is a master of the conditional mood and the qualifying phrase, of what might occur under such conditions if viewed from such a perspective.

“The likeness of a thing is received into the intellect according to the mode of the intellect, not according to the mode of the thing,” as St. Thomas Aquinas put it. In the 1873 story “Madame de Mauves,” the title character faces a situation similar to Maggie Verver’s—but responds differently. Priding herself on her incorruptibility, she refuses to forgive her penitent husband (a French baron who married her for her money) for his adultery. “She was stone, she was ice, she was outraged virtue”; in despair, the weak, guilt-ridden baron blows his brains out. By contrast, in response to her husband’s infidelity, Princess Maggie rejects “the straight vindictive view, the rights of resentment, the rages of jealousy, the protests of passion . . . usually open to innocence outraged and generosity betrayed,” because she can’t think of giving up her marriage to Amerigo (which, significantly, has produced a son) or her father’s marriage to Charlotte. In Wings of the Dove, Milly Theale, the dying heiress, bequeaths Merton Densher her fortune even after she learns that his professed love for her is a scheme cooked up by him and his lover, Kate Croy, to win her riches. But Milly’s generosity, like Maggie’s in The Golden Bowl, unmasks the schemers to each other. Kate and Merton’s love, like that of Amerigo and Charlotte, turns to ashes in the presence of the higher love.

Several years before his death in 1916, James published an essay about life after death, which, he writes, “is the most interesting question in the world, once it takes on all the intensity of which it is capable.” He focuses on what leads us to desire death “as a renewal of the interest, the appreciation, the passion, the large and consecrated consciousness . . . of which we have had so splendid a sample in this world.” While admitting that “‘science’ takes no account of the soul,” James asks us to reach “beyond the laboratory brain” to the “accumulation of the very treasure itself of consciousness.” The “artistic consciousness,” he continues, “shines as from immersion in the fountain of being. Into that fountain, to depths immeasurable, our spirit dips—to the effect of feeling itself, qua imagination and aspiration, all scented with universal sources.” James confesses that his “ desire ”—not his “belief”—is that this consciousness will continue to draw sustenance from its source after the death of the physical body.

James admits that this view parallels “the theory of the spiritual discipline, the purification and preparation on earth for heaven, of the orthodox theology.” But James simply does not know the God of believers; rather, “consciousness is my religion, human consciousness. Refining it, intensifying it—and preserving it,” as David Lodge accurately summarizes James’ lifelong project in his novel Author, Author (2004).

In his 1895 story “The Altar of the Dead,” James shows how consciousness can create and sustain communities. George Stransom, the story’s protagonist, is “not a little content” not to have the religion that “some of the people he had known wanted him to have.” No, Stransom realizes, “the religion instilled by his earliest consciousness had been simply the religion of the Dead.” Stransom enters “a temple of the old persuasion”—a Catholic church—and, in return for his munificence, wins permission from the bishop for an altar in a side chapel that is “consecrated to an ostensible and customary worship” but that, for Stransom, is really his altar of the dead. Stransom lights specific candles for specific dead and has “a quiet sense of having saved” his chosen souls more certainly than any orthodoxy could assure him: “This was no dim theological rescue, no boon of a contingent world,” he thinks. “They were saved better than faith or works could save them.” For Stransom’s chosen dead are saved “for continuity, for the certainty of human remembrance.”

Stransom’s “sense of community” with the dead is heightened by the presence of a single living person, a woman (never named) who joins him day after day in the chapel and lights a candle for her own dead. Later, Stransom discovers that the dead she is remembering is the one man he must exclude: Acton Hague, his close friend, “the only man with whom he had ever been intimate,” who then insulted and betrayed him. Stransom will not give Hague his candle; the community between Stransom and the woman is severed; she stops coming to the church. Months pass; Stransom is mortally ill. He and the woman meet one last time at the chapel. Their hearts have changed. Stransom embraces “one more” dead, Acton Hague; she embraces Stransom’s dead. And then Stransom dies, adding by his own death “one more” to the dead to be “saved” by the community of human remembrance, now consisting of just one living member, the unnamed woman.

The communion in James’ tales parallels the operation of the communion of saints in Catholic theology. In both, one person’s selfish sins hurt the entire community; conversely, one person’s generosity of spirit and acts of kindness benefit the whole body. In James, egotism—no matter how disguised as virtue or cloaked by ostensibly high ideals—is the enemy of communion, the thing that most blinds his characters and stops them from knowing each other.

In The Beast in the Jungle (1903), John Marcher’s belief in his unique individual destiny—something is going to happen to him that has happened to no other person, he believes—blinds him to May Bartram’s love. The beast springs (metaphorically) after May dies and John realizes he has missed his chance to love, for he “had never thought of [May] but in the chill of his egotism and the light of her use.”

“All life comes back to the question of our relations with each other,” James said. Life is a moral struggle, he wrote. “We can welcome experience as it comes . . . so long as it contributes to swell the volume of consciousness. In this there is mingled pain and delight, but over the mysterious mixture there hovers a visible rule, that bids us learn to will and seek to understand.”

Given James’ lack of orthodox belief, it is easy to see why secular philosophers such as Richard Rorty claim him as one of their own. James’ novels “help us achieve spiritual growth,” Rorty writes; James builds social solidarity by helping us to appreciate “the other.” Five years before James’ birth, in an address to the Harvard Divinity School seniors, Ralph Waldo Emerson had declared that the creed of the Puritans was “passing away” and that the hold of public worship “on men is gone, or going.” We must leave behind all creeds and “go alone,” seeing ourselves as “newborn bard[s] of the Holy Ghost, cast[ing] behind [us] all conformity.”

Emerson was a friend of the family. He blessed William in his crib shortly after his birth, and Henry attended Emerson’s funeral. Like Emerson, the boys’ father, Henry Sr., believed in “the only true spiritual life, a direct intercourse with God,” as he wrote shortly before his death. His “dying wish” was “that men should know and understand that all the ceremonies usually observed in births, marriages and funerals are nonsense and untrue.” “Spiritual existence has always been more real to me than natural,” James Sr. wrote. We “have a plenary divine origin and are bound to eventually see that divinity reproduced in our most familiar and trivial experience, even down the length of our shoe-ties.”

This was a nineteenth-century version of the Age of Aquarius: American gentlemen crying “Down with dogma” and finding God in their shoelaces. His son, Henry James Jr., found himself in the same situation as do today’s children of hippies and liberal secularists. He had to learn about organized religion secondhand—in his case, from the novels of Anthony Trollope and George Eliot. “There was no . . . detail of devotional practice that we [were] allowed to divine,” James wrote. “I should have been thankful for a state of faith which would have supplied more features and appearance”; ours was “too imperceptibly peopled.”

As an adult, the novelist son of the Emersonian father moved beyond Emerson, who, along with Hawthorne, was an “exquisite genius” but also an “exquisite provincial,” as James wrote. He rejected Emerson’s assertion that Americans needed “to extract the tape-worm of Europe from America’s body.” Rather, the interplay between the voices of Europe and America was the novelist’s lifelong fascination. Emerson’s “ripe unconsciousness of evil . . . is one of the most beautiful signs by which we know him,” James politely noted.

Not to know the nature of evil is to miss a lot. The novelist’s “experience taught him to believe in supernatural evil, but not in supernatural good,” Graham Greene once claimed. Perhaps it is no surprise that James the novelist was never able to write about dogmatic Christianity from the inside out, from the spiritual perspective of a believer nourished by the faith. James represents plenty of believers—Catholics, mainly—but the perspective of faith as a wellspring of spiritual sustenance escaped him. At critical moments, Lambert Strether of The Ambassadors goes to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, where he finds “no altar for his worship, no direct voice for his soul” though he finds the church “none the less soothing even to sanctity.”

In The Wings of the Dove, Merton Densher goes to the Brompton Oratory on Christmas morning to set right his earlier lie that he would be going to church. The “splendid service” at the oratory “didn’t match his own day, but it was much less of a discord than some other things actual and possible. The oratory, in short, to make him right, would do.” In The Golden Bowl, Princess Maggie, a Catholic who wears concealed a cross blessed by the pope, is troubled by her decision not to consult the prattling Catholic priest, Father Mitchell, about her dilemma; “she fear[s] the very breath of a better wisdom, the jostle of the higher light, of heavenly help itself.” Yet “priests were really, at the worst, so to speak, such wonderful people” that Maggie believes Fr. Mitchell to be silently counseling her to be kind to Charlotte.

James’ characters point to the heavenly light accessible through the Church but are unable to reflect it directly, explicitly through their own consciousnesses. “What a real pity that we are not Catholics, that this dazzling monument is not something more to us than a mere splendid show!” says Brooke Evans, the young American tourist in Italy in James’ 1870 story “Travelling Companions.” “What a pleasant thing it must be, in such a church as this, for two good friends to say their prayers together!”

In all his work, James insists on the cultural importance of churches, clergymen, and communal worship; cultures need visible signs of transcendent values. In 1904, James visited the United States after a twenty-one-year absence. In The American Scene, published after the visit, James identified churches as the element most notably missing from the American cityscape. Washington, D.C., he wrote, “bristles with national affirmations,” but “you . . . find yourself wondering what it is you so oddly miss . . . till it at last occurs to you that the existence of a religious faith on the part of the people is not even remotely suggested.” In New York, James expressed horror that Trinity Church had been “cruelly overtopped and [rendered] barely distinguishable” by surrounding skyscrapers—and, worse, that the men who had built the skyscrapers were trustees of the church, thus serving “that inexorable law of the growing invisibility of churches, their everywhere reduced or abolished presence, which is nine-tenths of their virtue.” In America, an “ancient treasure of precious vessels,” the church, has “been converted . . . into small change, . . . dollars and nickels.”

In Philadelphia, by contrast, James was pleased to find Independence Hall’s clear expression of transcendent moral values: “The collective consciousness, in however empty an air, gasps for a relation, as intimate as possible, to something superior, something as central as possible . . . [around] which its life may revolve.” James lamented the change in the social tone in New York and longed for the days “when the best manners had been the best kindness.” What might the city have become if it too had found “some power not of the purse” around which to build its life?

In all his writing, James himself is loath to judge. Princess Maggie, John Marcher, and Stransom do that themselves—judging themselves and others by how much they see, how firmly they reject egotism, how deeply they drink of the wine of consciousness flowing from the fountain of being. Maggie gives others full play until the moral implications of their deeds reveal themselves fully—as God does with us.

Bryan Berry is professor of literature and communications at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois.