The Portrait of a Lady
By Henry James
Paperback, 656 pages
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"You'll live to marry a better woman than I."
"Don't say that, please," said Lord Warburton very gravely. "That's fair to neither of us."
"To marry a worse one then."
"If there are better women than you I prefer the bad ones. That's all I can say," he went on with the same earnestness. "There's no accounting for tastes."
His gravity made her feel equally grave, and she showed it by again requesting him to drop the subject for the present. "I'll speak to you myself — very soon. Perhaps I shall write to you."
"At your convenience, yes," he replied. "Whatever time you take, it must seem to me long, and I suppose I must make the best of that."
"I shall not keep you in suspense; I only want to collect my mind a little."
He gave a melancholy sigh and stood looking at her a moment, with his hands behind him, giving short nervous shakes to his hunting-crop. "Do you know I'm very much afraid of it—of that remarkable mind of yours?"
Our heroine's biographer can scarcely tell why, but the question made her start and brought a conscious blush to her cheek. She returned his look a moment, and then with a note in her voice that might almost have appealed to his compassion, "So am I, my lord!" she oddly exclaimed.
His compassion was not stirred, however; all he possessed of the faculty of pity was needed at home. "Ah! be merciful, be merciful," he murmured.
"I think you had better go," said Isabel. "I'll write to you."
"Very good; but whatever you write I'll come and see you, you know." And then he stood reflecting, his eyes fixed on the observant countenance of Bunchie, who had the air of having understood all that had been said and of pretending to carry off the indiscretion by a simulated fit of curiosity as to the roots of an ancient oak. "There's one thing more," he went on. "You know, if you don't like Lockleigh—if you think it's damp or anything of that sort—you need never go within fifty miles of it. It's not damp, by the way; I've had the house thoroughly examined; it's perfectly safe and right. But if you shouldn't fancy it you needn't dream of living in it. There's no difficulty whatever about that; there are plenty of houses. I thought I'd just mention it; some people don't like a moat, you know. Good-bye."
"I adore a moat," said Isabel. "Good-bye."
He held out his hand, and she gave him hers a moment — a moment long enough for him to bend his handsome bared head and kiss it. Then, still agitating, in his mastered emotion, his implement of the chase, he walked rapidly away. He was evidently much upset.
Isabel herself was upset, but she had not been affected as she would have imagined. What she felt was not a great responsibility, a great difficulty of choice; it appeared to her there had been no choice in the question. She couldn't marry Lord Warburton; the idea failed to support any enlightened prejudice in favour of the free exploration of life that she had hitherto entertained or was now capable of entertaining. She must write this to him, she must convince him, and that duty was comparatively simple. But what disturbed her, in the sense that it struck her with wonderment, was this very fact that it cost her so little to refuse a magnificent "chance." With whatever qualifications one would, Lord Warburton had offered her a great opportunity; the situation might have discomforts, might contain oppressive, might contain narrowing elements, might prove really but a stupefying anodyne; but she did her sex no injustice in believing that nineteen women out of twenty would have accommodated themselves to it without a pang. Why then upon her also should it not irresistibly impose itself? Who was she, what was she, that she should hold herself superior? What view of life, what design upon fate, what conception of happiness, had she that pretended to be larger than these large, these fabulous occasions? If she wouldn't do such a thing as that then she must do great things, she must do something greater. Poor Isabel found ground to remind herself from time to time that she must not be too proud, and nothing could be more sincere than her prayer to be delivered from such a danger: the isolation and loneliness of pride had for her mind the horror of a desert place. If it had been pride that interfered with her accepting Lord Warburton such a betise was singularly misplaced; and she was so conscious of liking him that she ventured to assure herself it was the very softness, and the fine intelligence, of sympathy. She liked him too much to marry him, that was the truth; something assured her there was a fallacy somewhere in the glowing logic of the proposition — as HE saw it — even though she mightn't put her very finest finger-point on it; and to inflict upon a man who offered so much a wife with a tendency to criticise would be a peculiarly discreditable act. She had promised him she would consider his question, and when, after he had left her, she wandered back to the bench where he had found her and lost herself in meditation, it might have seemed that she was keeping her vow. But this was not the case; she was wondering if she were not a cold, hard, priggish person, and, on her at last getting up and going rather quickly back to the house, felt, as she had said to her friend, really frightened at herself.
Excerpted from A Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
Henry James often addresses the difference between the "old world," or European values and culture, and the "new world," or American values and culture. Literature and art are often considered to be places where a culture can showcase its sophistication, traditions, and values in their highest form. For Europeans during the mid to late 19th century, it was a novel idea that Americans were developing a higher culture capable of producing works of great literature. By the time The Portrait of a Lady was written though, several American authors had already gained respect in the Old World, such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman. Yet, the question remained: what cultural ideas and values did Americans represent? Could such new ideas change European culture? The literary tradition associated with the Old World at the time was after all, in a state of decadence. The character of Lord Warburton represents this. He has many political ideas about revolution and change, but he benefits from the very institution against which he rebels in thought. Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, though both are Americans, are examples of Old World values -- they are Americans who have come to Europe and fully adapted to the lifestyle of the Europeans. (For example, it is explicitly mentioned that Madame Merle is of the "old world" and Gilbert Osmond is likened to convention itself.) When Isabel Archer arrives in the first scene at Gardencourt, the men are discussing the possibility of women bringing new ideas with them. Isabel Archer represents American modernity and culture. When she walks in, she is the materialization of the hope that a fresh perspective on things could help revive old European traditions that are decadent and rigidly formal. However, in the book, she falls under the power of an American who has committed to Old World values; she falls for the illusion that there is a real system of value behind his aestheticism.
Gilbert Osmond is the villain of the novel. He is characterized by his fine taste and fine vision, but, practically speaking, he is incapable of taking action in life. Although he is a very capable curator of his own home, he is not even very good at making art himself. For example, Madame Merle, who also is known to have very fine taste, dislikes his drawings. Thus he is the characterization of a person who lives aesthetically by collecting objects, by doing nothing in life but looking and judging things. He does not create anything. Isabel however, originally believes that there is a system of value behind the way in which Gilbert Osmond judges things. She only later learns that he is only superficial, and he creates the illusion that there is some inscrutable secret behind his judgments that only he has access to. Because she believes that there is some sort of value behind his appearances, she believes she is "doing" something in enabling him to continue living as an aesthete by giving him money. Recall that all characters in the novel are constantly discussing what Isabel Archer will "do" in life. How will she exercise her ideas? She ends up believing that marrying Gilbert Osmond is a way of helping him exercise his ideas. This ultimately ends up being her "idea": helping another person to express himself. However, the truth comes out that he has no ideas; he just likes appearing as if he does have higher ideas by mystifying other people. Henry James is critiquing this kind of inactive life of aesthetic judgment without moral grounding. For more on the cultural context of aestheticism surrounding the novel, see Freedman's book in the works cited.
What does it mean to express one's own freedom? How can one go about expressing it? This is an issue in the novel. Isabel enjoys her independence, and one of our first characterizations of her is from Mrs. Touchett, who in a telegram describes her as "quite independent." (8) The telegram represents the difficulty of finding the means for an expression of "freedom": because the telegram is such a limited means of communication, it is hard for Mr. Touchett and Ralph to understand what Mrs. Touchett means when she says Isabel is independent. Does she mean Isabel is financially independent? Spiritually? Unmarried? The telegram then represents how language limits our ability to express the meaning of freedom, because we are dependent on the limited nature of signs for expression. To express the concept of freedom, we are dependent upon a system of convention that other people agree upon: language. Thus, in expressing freedom -- our independence from the world and others -- we necessarily show our dependence. This is dramatized in the telegram's lack of clarity, which is an even more restricted method of communication than language in general. Likewise, Isabel's grand "idea" that she would like to express throughout the book seems to be the concept of freedom, but she has no means to do so other than rejecting the opinions and desires of others. So she expresses her freedom by turning down Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton's marriage proposals. Freedom is expressible only negatively. Ralph believes he is simply providing her with the "means" to better express her freedom of thought when he gives her half of his inheritance. However, this means of expression, money, ends up determining the events of the novel, and the content of her idea. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan says: the way she expresses herself ends up determining what she has to express.
This novel deals with the mistreatment of other people. Madame Merle keeps hidden the nature of her relationship to Osmond from Isabel, and she also calculates such that Isabel will end up marrying Osmond. She does this for Pansy. There is the suggestion that Madame Merle has treated Isabel only as a "tool" for an end in the scene where Isabel confronts Merle in the convent. We can understand this as a Kantian ethical formulation: one should not treat others as means, but rather only as ends in themselves. That is, we should not use others to achieve something we would like, but we need to recognize the way they have their own desires in life. Isabel demonstrates her moral superiority by wanting to aid Pansy in what Pansy herself wants -- not what she personally has determined is "best" for Pansy. This shows a commitment to allowing people to choose their own path in life rather than determining what they should do in life.
Another aspect of morality that is important is the recognition of motivation as determining the moral content of an action. This shows how psychological realism, a representation of what goes on in the mind of another person, is an important aspect of Henry James' moral vision. For example, both Ralph Touchett and Madame Merle are agents in Isabel's fate. They both deceive Isabel by keeping a truth from her knowledge: Ralph Touchett does not tell Isabel that it was his idea to give her his inheritance, and Madame Merle does not tell Isabel that she knew Gilbert Osmond intimately. Isabel would not have been a target if Ralph had not given her the money. Mr. Touchett, Ralph's father, even recognizes that fortune hunters may come after Isabel, and that Ralph's action may not be moral. However, we recognize Ralph as a good friend, and Madame Merle as a traitor of Isabel. Ralph only intended to help Isabel express her own idea, whereas Madame Merle's intention was to trick Isabel into marrying Osmond, a man she knew would make Isabel miserable. The evaluation of whether a good or a bad intention was the motivation for an action is important for the novel. In Henry James' world, a person who is very perceptive is able to attribute various motivations to others, while also seeing these other people as whole human beings. They are able to perceive the different possibilities of how other people think, of what other people want, rather than imposing conventional desires upon their readings of these people. This is what is occurring in Chapter 42, which Henry James believes is his great achievement of the novel. Isabel sits up and begins to read the people around her: she begins to wonder what they really want, trying to figure out how their relationships to each other might provide her with some sort of clue.
Women were expected to marry at this time, and they were flaunting convention when they did not. While the concept of romantic love did exist in the late 19th century, it was still more common to marry for social status and wealth. Isabel, however, chooses not to marry for social status or wealth. We might assume that she marries instead for romantic love. But if we look closely at Isabel's psychological motivations, the narrator does not explicitly say that she is in love with Osmond. Why should one marry? Henry James remained a bachelor his entire life. Isabel does not exactly choose the path of romantic love either. It seems instead that she has another idea: she wants to use her marriage to help others, so as to be able to "do" something in life. Her idea of taking action is still to marry, but it is to marry for reasons other than money, love, or social status. Henrietta serves as an interesting contrast to Isabel because she is the depiction of a modern woman who does actually have an occupation. Yet, Henrietta is a limited character because she often does not care very much for the nuances of other people. She is somewhat intolerant of other people's views. Isabel on the other hand, is too generous when it comes to her perspective of others: she has a talent for caring. The implication is that Isabel has no talent in writing, and that there are no real pathways for women who have other talents during this time period.
Some critics have called this a Bildungsroman (see for example Baruch, works cited). In a Bildungsroman, a hero undergoes a process of education in society -- he has life experiences from which he learns how to live in the world, how to realize his goals in the world. This novel is a more interior exploration of that process of education. We meet Isabel in the library reading a book of German philosophy. She is likely reading a book of German Idealism, which asserts that the world is made up of ideas. However, in practice she ends up learning that such ideas are very much influenced by the world. There is no pure idea that exists separate from our world experiences. Her process of education then reveals the gap between the internal nature of ideals and how they come to be in the external world.