Sunday, May 3, 2009

James' Critique of Romantic Selfhood: PORTRAIT OF A LADY

One thing leads to another: thinking about Dickens' novel, Little Dorrit, I was reminded of some lines in Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode" ("Shades of the prison-house begin to close . . . ") which led me to further thoughts about the 19th century novel. And now I've been thinking about the tragic predicament or dilemma that the heroine of one these, Isabel Archer in Henry James' Potrait Of A Lady (1880) lands herself in.

What is a tragic dilemma? A situation in which you are damned if you do and damned if don't. Tragic dilemmas wouldn't occur in a reasonable world; every problem would have a rational solution. We don't live in a reasonable world: reason can and not infrequently does lead to contradictory judgements or impossible choices.

Isabel Archer is a young American woman with what would, in the 1870s or 80s have been typically American ideas or ideals about life, the world, and the self--typical, at any rate, for those brought up and educated within the magnetic field of Ralph Waldo Emerson. (See Richard Poirier's essay in The Comic Sense of Henry James). Thoreau, a student of Emerson's, gives us something of the flavor of those teachings when he is telling us, in Walden, why he went to live in the woods.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it.

Why would one go live in the woods to find out what life had to teach? Why not New York, or London, or Paris? A hundred or so years earlier, Samuel Johnson had said, "He who is tired of London is tired of life." How does one learn what life is all about but by playing the hand one's been dealt and living the life one's got wherever that is?

Emerson, to be fair, did not tell Thoreau or anyone else to avoid cities and live in the woods. He did, however encourage people to take a heroic view of their own free 'self-development' (as we would say) as a goal in itself independently of the conventions, ready-made opinions and official emotions of organized, systematic society. Freedom, he implied, is incompatible with life in that world. James novel tests that (romantic) idea--and finds it, to my way of thinking at least, insufficient.

Isabel, to sum up crudely a subtle work of intricate art, tries to live deliberately and freely, independently of the great social machine that is trying to draw her in and make her part of it, but she is too inexperienced, too innocent; when she meets a man, Gilbert Osmond, who seems to be living deliberately, freely, independently, she has no way of knowing that this cosmopolitan American expat is merely a sterile, snobbish esthete who lives in Italy because he is too poor to live in unproductive idleness anywhere else, and wants her money; he gives the illusion of one who lives deliberately, freely, independently--and honestly--just because he is not part of the Italian social-political-economic structure any more than she is and information as to his character is not readily accessible--as it would have been had they met in, say, New York. Or maybe not. Isabel wants to believe in Osmond and refuses to listen to those who try to warn her.

She soon realizes her mistake but she is trapped. It was not so easy to get out of a bad marriage in those days. She thinks of leaving Osmond but all her choices are bad and she accepts her lot: death of the mind and heart as the wife of a man who makes Joseph de Maistre look like a liberal, in the "house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation."

That is not the way Jane Austen's novels end.


  1. I just finished Portrait of a Lady tonight and went looking for online 'comments' and came across your blog. I knew I'd found an interesting spot when you mentioned Little Dorrit, another favorite of mine as my username would indicate.

    I've been reading through James' short stories and novels and wondered how he would handle a character whose personality could best be defined as a malignant narcissist. Doubtless people like Gilbert Osmand weren't 'diagnosed' as such in that day and age, but James must have met someone of such a category to have written Osmand's character so well.

    It truly was like watching a butterfly wander into Shelob's den.

    James seems to have been a keen observer of individuals and I do wonder if meeting such a person was the spark that gave life to this story?

  2. It is not hard to find people like Gilbert Osmund who use others for their satisfaction or advantage under cover of high-minded disinterestedness; they're everywhere, at any time. Isabel Archer is one of a number of characters in James' fiction who, influenced by Emerson in one way or another, want something else for themselves. But it is not easy for someone not already experienced (i.e. a bit cynical) in the ways of the world to live life on Emersonian terms.

    Emersonian terms.