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The Portrait of Isabel Archer

  - a new technique and beyond it



Despite the fact that any piece of criticism should start from the opus and not from an external concept, with Henry James it is better to do it vice versa. That’s because he is a pioneer of the 20th century fiction in giving to the novel a new dimension: the wide field of human consciousness as the center of a novel.

In the preface to “ The Portrait of a Lady” he makes a full confession of his technique, namely that of “the point of view”. For Henry James the act of creation begins with the “vision of some person or persons” and

never consists in “any conceit  of a plot…but altogether in  the sense of a single character” in this particular case “the character and aspect of a particular engaging woman”.

Accordingly, in “The Portrait of a Lady” one can find Aristotle’s well-known concept on art, namely that the poet(creator) may present not only real things but also possible ones within the limits of credibility and necessity. With Isabel Archer, the central consciousness of the novel, the reader becomes aware of the wide range of choices she is offered, “which among the possibilities, being precisely the question” says H. James.

Unlike the omniscient writer, H. James does present Isabel as she discovers the world, and also with the help of the “reflectors”: Ralph, Mr. And Mrs. Touchett, Lord Wartburton, Henrietta Stackpole, Caspar Goodwood. Any of these “satellites” sees the heroine according to his or her capacity of observation. As H. James tells in the Preface “they are, single or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher – without in other words, the consciousness of the artist”.

What happens in fact from the first pages of the novel is everybody considers Isabel a superior creature, a gifted young person who deserves a particular destiny. Her sisters do, her aunt, her cousin.

Whether she is or not superior this is to be revealed gradually. What is obvious from the very beginning is the fact that Isabel Archer is basically good; moreover she is pure. One of H. James’s themes was that of the pure innocent American victimized by Europe, Europe that beyond the grandeur of its civilization has a rotten morality.

Hence, what takes place in the pages of the novel can be called a gradual process of change of the pure innocent American young lady Isabel Archer. Isabel, the central consciousness grows, develops as she is revealed through several “reflectors”.

The point of view has thus a philosophical and a technical implication.

The philosophical one is that of the various possibilities in which life as well as everything in the Universe can be shaped: the technical implication refers to the impersonality of the author.

Each “reflector” comes on the stage to cast a different light upon the central consciousness and that according to his or her capacity of reflection; thus becoming flat or episodic like Isabel’s sisters or, on the contrary, steady company in the heroine’s “adventure” like Henrietta. This enables one to group them in a few pairs. Lord Wartburton’s sisters as well as Isabel’s sisters are definitely flat characters. One can hardly remember their name before finishing reading the novel.

Next comes Isabel’s aunt, Mrs. Touchett, an eccentric lady, quite odd in her manners and ideas. A similar eccentricity demonstrates Countess Gemini, yet  with a touch of vulgarity.

Lord Wartburton is the perfect English gentleman, a man of fortune who has got everything in life except love. He seems to have no pair in the novel, yet he has: old Mr. Touchett, a venerable figure, an idealization of the wealthy astute accomplished American banker who also knew love’s deception.

Here comes the most steadfast couple in the book, Henrietta Stackpole and Caspar Goodwood; the true friend and the insistent suitor of Isabel’s. And so on, Pansy and Rosier, sensitive, fragile like petals;

Mme Merle and Gilbert Osmond, the diabolic couple, they come on the stage in pairs. The dramatic method works all right. They al seem moving just like in a performance; Isabel call it somewhere in the book a comedy or a tragedy. In fact is a dumb show; they all speak but cannot talk. There is no communication between them, as well as between Isabel and the others. Each and everyone thinks she or he understands her, yet they are all mistaken. The problem is they cannot grasp that Isabel is a regular person, an average American young lady; none of them treats her as such. They all believe she is on her path straight to perfection and refuse to accept her losing direction. They refuse considering her a human being, they cannot accept that she may fail. Perhaps one person in the book detects exactly her nature, Mr. Touchett: “She’ll hardly fall a victim to more than one”.

Isabel Archer is not a special person. If there is something special about her this lies in her desire of perfection, in her “inflated ideals” quite uncommon in a young lady.

She strikes, at first, for the freedom of her mind. That doesn’t mean her mind is remarkable or she is not capable of mistakes. She is all right. The problem is that she cannot admit it:” I can’t publish my mistake”. She is doing her best to live according to her model – a perfect ideal one.

At a certain moment in the novel the world seems too small to Isabel. Why? That’s because she seeks for external liberty; she cannot grasp that since the world seems small to you that is the mind which is narrowing it is bound by social conventions, prejudice, a dangerous morality.

When one has the wide field of the imagination free then a single room is enough for living.

There is enough discrepancy between what Isabel thinks life to be and what life really is.

Isabel’s paramount desire is to see people, places, know ever more every day, to watch life as a panorama, from outside, to contemplate it, now and then adopt a critical attitude but only as a playgoer, everything at the level of a stage performance.

“I don’t wish to touch the cup of experience. It’s a poisoned drink! I only want to see for myself”.

And Ralph’s answer is : “You want to see but not to feel”.

That’s in fact the truth about Isabel. She cannot choose being a player. She likes to think life is a pleasant adventure, and traveling seems to her being the way one gets information on life and living.

She cannot get any further into the meaning of real life because she doesn’t care but for great remarkable things, deeds, ideas, people, events, places. Anything lacking in importance, greatness, fame, superiority does not make the object of her interest. Here lies the cause for her failure: in her rejection of the bad bitter dull side of life, that is of real life. That’s how, I would say , her failure a quixotesque  one: she rejects the earthly truth for the illusion of the pure intangible ideal one. She is thus deluded by appearances. Yet, she will never admit it, even when she is perfectly aware of it.

Let’s discuss, for instance, the issue of her marriage. First of all, what does marriage mean to her? We don’t know. Neither she does. Of course, she has some great ideas about marriage as about everything else. She opposes marriage to her ideas of freedom and independence. Isabel wants to postpone it and enjoy her freedom to travel all over the world by herself. That’s why she rejects Caspar Goodwood, Lord Wartburton, and even Osmond. Why in the world does she come back to marry the most insignificant one, as she call him “a perfect nonentity”? This has nothing to do with her theories but with something else. Isabel is everything but strong. Unfortunately, she will discover it too late.

Till then she likes to believe herself an independent person, and as such the very confirmation of it coming from a refined person as Mme Merle could make her but a wretched puppet. From that moment, Isabel doesn’t belong to herself any longer. Psychologically she belongs to the odious couple of Mme Merle and Gilbert Osmond. She is confused in their tangle, spellbound and vulnerable. It is Mme merle who enchanted Isabel with her “song” - the song of the merle – pouring sweetness in each word, each gesture, each move. Let’s read an fragment from  her  talk with Osmond:

(Osmond) “Isn’t she meant for something better than that?” (marrying him)

(Mme Merle)”I don’t pretend to know what people are meant for. I only know what I can do with them.”

It is interesting to find out what Osmond means to Isabel. Again she fails in detecting his character, as she has done with her own character and also with Mme Merle’s. She fall in love with her  image of Osmond. Yet immediately after marrying him she learns the truth; she realizes he is but a simulacrum of perfection. However she remains a captive. She does not attempt to escape the cage, not even rebel. Why since she does not love him? She has to admit it to Henrietta: ”No, I don’t like him”.

So, what is it? She is still under the same spell. Osmond has a strong influence upon her but she is not yet aware of it. Isabel lost her independence; she is doing her best to please him, to be a good wife, to share his opinions, to adopt his views. She feels that doesn’t work, yet she is confident, and finally she succeeds but still ignoring it.

In chapter 47 she voices his theory, yet she is unaware of it. A theory which she never heard from his lips, yet every moment, every day has been inculcated by him  in his special way of persuade, of taking control of somebody’s mind.

“One must accept one’s deeds. I married him before all the world; I was perfectly free; it was impossible to do anything more deliberate. One can’t change that way.”

This is what Isabel tells Henrietta in chapter 47. Now let’s take a look at chapter 51 where a similar theory if not the same is voiced by Osmond:

“I take our marriage seriously…It may be a disagreeable proximity; it’s one, at any rate, of our deliberately making… Because I think we should accept the consequences of our actions, and what I value most in life is the honour of a thing.”

After this confrontation Isabel realizes she is but a subject of his terrible authority. All the time she has kept repeating to herself: “I’m afraid, yes. I’m afraid”. She cannot say for sure whom is she afraid of, or perhaps no one or nothing in particular, yet everyone and everything. When Countess Gemini asks her in a harsh tone:

“Why else are you rich and clever and good?” she answers promptly: “Why indeed, I feel stupidly weak”.

Despite her weakness Isabel rebels. Or maybe it is exactly the awareness of her weakness which makes protest. And she does so by leaving for Gardencourt to see Ralph on his death bed.

Actually, what truly determines her take such a resolute step? I would say that for the first time in her life feeling is stronger than reason. Now she realizes how much Ralph has loved her, and for the first time she is touched by a man’s love for her. She regrets immensely  her selfishness,  her pride, her foolishness in hiding her weakness as a woman. Her capacity of devotion has been mislead. In her last confession to Ralph she knows he had deserved all her gratitude. Their confessions on his death bed relieve her, have a strong effect upon her. By taking the liberty of seeing her cousin, Isabel, in fact, starts a new stage of her life: she regains hope and self confidence.

“Deep in her soul – deeper than any appetite for renunciation was the sense that life would be her business for a long time to come. And at moments there was something inspiring, almost enlivening in the conviction. It was a proof of strength – it was a proof she would be some day happy again”. (Ch. 53)



©Elena Malec, Bucharest, March 1978. All rights reserved.

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