This essay closely examines Henry James's notion of “tact”—caution in what one says about others—treating the idea from an ethical perspective. I trace James's ethics of tact through his late The Wings of the Dove, arguing that the author holds himself to certain stringent standards of omission and circumlocution and depicts his characters in the act of discovering, formulating, and transgressing these rules for themselves as they try to figure out what to do and say about the fatal illness of the protagonist, Milly Theale. James's late style, often described as impenetrable and highly aestheticized, in fact participates in this tact at the same time that it presents readers and critics with a choice about how much they will say or consider themselves to know about the “facts” of the text they read. Thus, James's late style poses ethical problems to readers while representing such problems in its narrative. The importance of Jamesian tact extends, I argue, to current studies of literary character and novelistic form, where a reading of James can help critics to develop theories of the novel that place ethics at the center of formalist criticism. Such repositioning can help us get a clearer understanding of James's ethics of form and also provide contemporary criticism with conscientious alternatives to historicism.

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