Israel Drazin

The figure in the carpet

Henry James (1843-1916) published “The Figure in the Carpet” in 1896. He is best known for his novel “The Portrait of a Lady,” first published in 1880. He frequently filled his tales with ambiguity and even obscurity, as he does in this 48-page short story. He never gave us an interpretation of this story. He left it to us to decipher it.

In the story, a magazine critic of novels meets his favorite author and becomes obsessed with his discovery that the author told him that he placed secret meaning in all his works, a meaning that the critic never saw. The author says that his secret is like a complex figure in a Persian carpet. He seems to be saying that the critic, like all or virtually all other people, see only the carpet, but not the figure interwoven in it, a figure that the author considers important in his books. They simply lack enough intelligence to see it. The author refused to reveal that meaning to him. Neither the critic nor anyone else were able to discover it.

There are, I think, at least two ways to decipher the tale. First and most likely, James was mocking the literature critics of his day whom he felt did not sufficiently understand and appreciate his novels and he wrote this mocking tale out of revenge. He was saying, critics can never really understand what an author intends in his novels.

A second, less likely interpretation, but a possible one, is that James was commenting on people generally. Although there are a few intellectuals, most people are incapable of deep thought and even become frightened when you tell them the truth. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BCE) and many thinkers after him said, you cannot teach the general community the truth because their lives and their thinking, if you can call it that, is based on notions taught to them as children, and if you tell them the truth, they become flustered, confused, frightened, and argumentative; the structure of their lives begins to crumble and they do not know what to do, what to think. The best thing is as the Muslim philosopher ibn Tufail (1105-1185) taught in his philosophical novel “Hayy ibn Yaqzan,” tell them they are right, tell them what Plato called a “noble lie,” what the Jewish sage Maimonides (1138-1204) called “an essential truth,” an untrue idea that the general public needs to think is true, such as “Yes, God becomes angry if you misbehave” and “Be good, otherwise you will go to Hell.”

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.