Acting Beautifully

Henry James and the Ethical Aesthetic

By Sigi Jottkandt

Subjects: Aesthetics
Series: SUNY series in Psychoanalysis and Culture
Paperback : 9780791465585, 196 pages, June 2006
Hardcover : 9780791465578, 196 pages, November 2005

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents

List of Tables

1. Portrait of an Act: Representation and Ethics in The Portrait of a Lady
2. "A Poor Girl with Her Rent to Pay": The Wings of the Dove
3. Lighting a Candle to Infinity: "The Altar of the Dead"

Works Cited

Addresses ethical and aesthetic issues in three major works by Henry James.


What is the matter with the women in Henry James? In The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, and his short story "The Altar of the Dead," one woman returns to a monster of a husband, another dies rather than confront the truth of her lover's engagement, while yet another stakes her all on having a candle lit for a dead lover, only to promptly reject it. Exploring these strange choices, Sigi Jöttkandt argues that the singularity of these acts lies in their ethical nature, and that the ethical principle involved cannot be divorced from the question of aesthetics. She combines close readings of James with suggestive tours through Kantian aesthetics and set theory to uncover the aesthetic underpinning of the Lacanian ethical act, which has been largely overlooked in the current drive to discover a Cartesian origin for the subject as the subject of science.

Sigi Jöttkandt is a Flanders Research Council Fellow in the Department of English at Ghent University in Belgium.