Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Henry James’ prose style has been described as turgid, wordy, labyrinthine, difficult. I find it artful and effective. It is part of the context and the environment of his fiction. James deliberately uses his prose style as a way of methodically uncovering the hidden layers of his characters, and of giving readers time to absorb statements and realizations and discoveries about characters. We’ve been spoiled by contemporary fiction that conditions us to expect short and deliberately styled journalistic sentences. Not so with James. His language provides entry to the consciousness of his characters.

In his 1908 introduction to The Portrait of a Lady James explains that he thought of this novel as a work of architecture constructed around the consciousness of his central character, “erecting on such a plot of ground the neat and careful and proportioned pile of bricks that arches over it and that was thus to form, constructionally speaking, a literary monument. Such is the aspect that to-day ‘The Portrait’ wears for me: a structure reared with an ‘architectural’ competence, as Turgenieff would have said, that makes it, to the author’s own sense, the most proportioned of his productions after ‘The Ambassadors.’”

Through his influence on such writers as Conrad, Joyce, Faulkner, Wharton, and others, James taught modern readers how to read. His use of irony, his ability to suggest what is going on around a character who herself may have no idea, his use of unreliable narrators, his placement on the reader of the burden of comprehension, perception, and judgment—these are what we expect of modern fiction. We are more attuned to these devices in 2010 than we would have been when Portrait was first published as a magazine serial in 1880 and as a book in 1881 (it was later extensively revised for the 1908 New York Edition, the one I’m commenting on here). Our surprise at various revelations in Portrait might therefore be less intense in 2010 than it would have been 130 years ago. Yet we can still appreciate the careful delineation of character, the genuine human understanding and sympathy that James brings to his characters, his ability to define the structure of an entire social structure and historical period.

One of the most interesting characteristics of this novel is how the reader’s estimation of various characters changes and develops. Isabel’s understanding develops as well, but readers are typically able to sense before she can what the intentions and virtues (or defects) of certain characters are. Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond are two examples. I was suspicious of Osmond from the start, and when Isabel was persuaded to marry him, I was sure unpleasantness would follow. James carefully and subtly builds the case against Osmond so that the reader reaches conclusions without being forced to them. Even our perceptions of Isabel evolve. At first she seems wholly innocent and good, yet her acceptance of Osmond as a husband seems a grievous mistake, as does, in retrospect, her rejection of the marriage proposal from Lord Warburton (whose character is never much in doubt). James’ characters in this novel are three-dimensional forms to be regarded from all angles and perspectives, in different lights and contexts, before their true nature comes clear. James in his preface to Portrait writes that "The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million — a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will."

To James, characters are not merely fictional constructs—they are living organisms with whom he engages fully.

Isabel Archer as a virtuous yet ambitious American falls victim to her own gullibility. Her initial obliviousness to the bad intentions of others makes her an inevitable victim. She is manipulated by others around her, even those who she believes are her closest friends. She is a constant object of scrutiny—because she is an American abroad (a circumstance more remarkable in 1880 than today), and because she is a beautiful, intelligent, and perhaps headstrong young woman. Everyone watches to see what decisions she will make, what her ultimate fortunes may be. She is a possible marriage partner to some, a possible source of wealth and advancement for others. Like Christopher Newman in The American, her innocence and lack of experience with “Europeans” put her at risk.

It’s easy to regard Portrait as a feminist novel. While Isabel means to determine her own destiny and wants to see as much of the world as she can, others are intent on making certain she is tied down. Marriage is the social institution to which most women in the 1880s would be drawn, but Isabel is not necessarily interested in that choice. When she does marry, she does so as the result of a character she misjudges. When she is faced with the choice of not returning to her husband after a long separation, the demands of social convention, propriety, and commitments to others for whom she feels responsible over weigh her desire not to go back. It is a cowardly decision in some ways, a surrender to convention, to return to a cold and manipulative husband, yet because certain individuals need her and depend on her, it is also a decision of courage and sacrifice. Portrait as a novel offers a dim view of marriage, which it shows as oppressive to women. There are four failed marriages in the novel, most notably Isabel’s. Portrait’s conclusion is as dark a conclusion as one might imagine for Isabel personally, barring her serious injury or death.

James has often been described as a novelist of human consciousness. Portrait is a full and rich evocation of the consciousness of Isabel Archer. Few characters have I admired so much as Isabel--in the sense that a reader admires literary characters--and few books have given me as much pleasure in the reading as this one. In his Preface, James explains how he decided to develop the novel, “’Place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s own consciousness,’ I said to myself, ‘and you get as interesting and as beautiful a difficulty as you could wish. Stick to THAT— for the centre; put the heaviest weight into THAT scale, which will be so largely the scale of her relation to herself.’”

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