When reading Henry James’s first novel, one might be ready to compare the main character Roger to that other Roger from Trollope’s The Way We Live Now
. In some ways, both Rogers are similar in the fact that both are in love with much younger girls. However, I think that is also where the similarities end. Trollope’s Roger is an insipid character—dull and morose, someone who ultimately does what he can for the good of others through an act of personal sacrifice. From what I remember, Trollope himself stated that Roger’s character should not be regarded as a main interest for his story...that a true reader’s focus should be centered on those self-centered roguish types, like Melmotte and Sir Felix, who try their best to make a gain from a corrupt society.
On the other hand, Henry James’ Roger is actually rather interesting as a character. James provides Roger with a strong backbone, ready to weather any storm that may come his way and adapt accordingly. Yes, his heart and his mind are grounded upon his own desires and future outcomes, yet he is not portrayed as an immoral, corrupt or clingy individual. His interests are genuine, without appearing self-centered. Roger cares for his ward and wants the best for her, whatever fate she may choose. Unlike Trollope’s Roger, James’ Roger won’t be making a martyr’s sacrifice. James’ Roger lays out his cards and patiently waits for the outcome.
James also provides an interesting take on the ward’s story. Nora’s story is akin to the ugly duckling tale. Our plain and awkward duck becomes a beautiful swan, who is ready to become initiated into society. However, it is society that ultimately helps Nora decide her fate. As Trollope illustrated in his later novel, Henry James, here, portrays society as a corrupt entity—a place where only the strongest are able to successfully play society’s games.
Even though this is a relatively short work, I ultimately think that for James’ first novel, Watch and Ward
is a very good book and one that I really enjoyed reading.