web counter VISITORS SINCE JUNE, 2006

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Character Motivation, Psychology & Resolution in Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady"

The last part of "The Portrait of a Lady" demands a great deal from the reader.  There are complexities that seem to only become clear under close examination of the characters' motivations.  This doesn't mean, of course, that the reader should put on the proverbial Freudian hat, but rather that the reader dig deep within the characters egos.  This is far more demanding when examining Isabel Archer's actions during the last third of the novel.  Certainly, there are enough characters for the reader to exercise this interpretation, and it is possible for her to do so.

The middle chapters of the novels seem to pass rather fast in terms of the events that affect Isabel directly.  Her marriage to Gilbert Osmond is abruptly brought in as the reader finishes a chapter.  James' confidence in the reader's ability to interpret this is amazingly conceptualized; that is to say, a few sentences into the chapter the reader realizes that Isabel's life has changed drastically, and the imagination it takes to understand the abrupt change demands quite a bit from the reader.  The events, however, are quite satisfactory as the reader moves on with the plot.  This,  I believe, encourages the reader to look at Isabel Archer's character before and after.  Where did all that confidence and independence go?  Was it all accountable to the innocence of a young woman not in tune with the world?  The masterful manipulation by Madame Merle allows the reader to (at least) feel some sympathy for Isabel.  Nevertheless, Isabel begins to rise to the surface as a realistic heroine and takes charge of her life knowing living with Osmond is not the place for her.  Even when the reader discovers she is back in Rome, James is not specific about what she went there for, and, the meeting between Henrietta Stackpole and Caspar Goodwood at the end of the novel (where Henrietta pleads with Caspar to be "patient") leaves the open interpretation of 1) Isabel goes to Rome to divorce Osmond, or 2) Isabel is living alone in Rome and Caspar should go there to meet her.  3) Isabel goes back to Rome not to fulfill her marital promise but rather to keep a promise she made to Pansy, Osmond's daughter, who is not in a convent against her will (?).  That is the beauty of this novel--it is a novel, after all, of possibilities and James' masterful hand keeps it so until the very end.

There are, however, some problematic behavior by Isabel Archer.  First, the precipitation of her marital problems occur in one chapter.  Before that chapter, the reader could see trouble brewing, but it was not clear as to whether or not Isabel would take the necessary steps to take herself out of the situation.  On the contrary, Isabel begins to manage Pansy Osmond's life almost as if Pansy was a mirror image (a portrait) of herself.  When she realizes that Madame Merle is after the planning of Lord Warburton's interest in Pansy, Isabel takes the necessary steps to steer Pansy away from Lord Warburton and into Edgar Rosier's hands.  Of course, the reader sees this as a romantic endeavour; here is Isabel Archer making sure that the awful thing that happened to her now happens to Pansy.  Of course, Isabel is feeling pressure from everyone; in every corner she turns there are a pair of hands she has to avoid knowing they are there to control her into the next disaster in her life.  For example, when Isabel feels the pressure from Caspar Goodwood, and the obligation to visit her cousin Ralph Touchett (who has come to Rome at the worst time possible for his health), she resort to a trick which reminds the reader of Madame Merle herself.  ... [S]he had given him [Caspar Goodwood] an occupation; she had converted him into a caretaker of Ralph.  She had a plan of making him travel northward with her cousin as soon as the first mild weather should allow it.  Lord Warburton had brought Ralph to Rome and Mr. Goodwood should take him away.  There seemed to be a happy symmetry in this, she was not intensely eager that Ralph should depart (bold mine).  There is, of course, pragmatic justice in all of this--nevertheless, the reader might consider Isabel a masterful puppet master of the Madame Merle kind.

The novel offers an immense number of opportunities for the reader to "analyze" the characters from their motivations and judgments.  Isabel going back to Ralph's death bed against Osmond's wishes can be interpreted in many ways.  First, Isabel sees (during their meeting in Osmond's studio--where he is copy-painting a watercolor out of a book) not only as unoriginal, but so immersed in his own ego that whatever she does is of no importance to him.  She draws the parallel to Pansy and her father's control of her destiny as another example of Osmond's monster psychology.  This is one of the pieces of evidence a reader might interpret as a motivation for Isabel to go back to Rome after Ralph's death.  Again, as I stated earlier, Isabel could be returning to Rome to rescue Pansy.  Certainly, Caspar Goodwood appears too relaxed, too self-satisfied in his meeting with Ms. Stackpole at the very end of the novel to indicate he has now thrown all overboard and given up on Isabel.  The novel ends, of course, but the reader is allowed (for the millionth time) to see into the characters' psychology and motivations and decipher magic beyond the pages of this masterpiece.  If, as many old rock and roller believe, Eric Clapton is god, then Henry James is Zeus.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, February 11, 2011

Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady"

It is believed that William James (the other half of the American genius brothers) told his brother that his novel "The Europeans" was, as I quote here from literary article included in my edition of the novel, too "thin."  Henry James did not leave a written reply to his brother, but literary minds speculate what the response might have been (a very not pleasant one).

I am re-reading this novel for the first time since my junior year of undergrad (quite a few years ago).  It reminds me of another novel, "Anna Karenina" by virtue that the title doesn't fully describe what the reader will find inside the covers.  "The Portrait of a Lady" is certainly about Isabel Archer; the narrator explains this early on.  Yet, as the novel becomes more and more dense with female characters establishing their will and freedom, the title of heroine could fit any number of them.  With "Anna Karenina" the same thing happens.  The novels is not simply about a heroine, but about every single connection to characters and their motivations.  In "The Portrait of a Lady," the portrait could very well be (besides Isabel Archer) Mrs. Touchett, Madame Merle, Henrietta Stackpole, Pansy Osmond, etc.  I would even go as far as pointing out that the portrait could very well be about Lord Warburton's sisters, their "cameo" appearance in Chapter 9 notwithstanding.  The portrait could exalt or criticize the new liberation of female roles, as well as push several of these characters into "pigeon holes" of Victorian standards.  But sticking to the theory that the portrait is all Isabel Archer, the narrator pushes the character through a plethora of extreme changes, efficient in terms of the plot and realism of the character but perhaps disappointing to some for the large jumps between the same changes.  The reader meets Isabel as she arrives in England; she is portrayed as an independent, hungry for freedom young lady that is full of idealism and itches to exercise her power.  Yet, as the novel turns back the clock and relates Isabel of yore, the reader begins to discover a very different Isabel.  She is the youngest of the Archer sisters, not yet married.  Isabel, a voracious reader of literature, is full of vistas of a life of adventure.  When her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, "rescues" her from her life in America, Isabel takes that as a "sign" to exercise her freedom and power.  The problem the reader is left with here is that of whether or not Isabel knows what she is doing.  In turning down Lord Warburton's proposal, Isabel is not simply turning down the English nobleman because of the precipitous offer, but rather because it is a new experience for her--the opportunity to say "no," for "no's sake."  It is with this in mind that the reader later sees Isabel confront Caspar Goodwood, her original beau who's come all the way from America to try and see if he cannot convince her of the sincerity of his marriage proposal.  Apparently, as we learn from Henrietta's conversation with Isabel, Caspar had been "told" to wait a few years and "see."  Caspar and Isabel meet in Chapter 16 and their conversation doesn't simply remind the reader of her refusal of Lord Warburton, but it takes into a severe form of language all its own:
"Are you enjoying your visit to your uncle?"
"Very much indeed," She dropped, but then she broke out. "What good do you expect to get by insisting?"
"The good of not losing you."
"You've no right to talk of losing what is not yours. And even from your own point of view," Isabel added, "you ought to know when to let one alone."
Yet, in saying this, the reader sees Isabel commit a blunder of intentions by telling Caspar Goodwood:
"Until when?" [Caspar asks Isabel how long will she take to make up her mind].
"Well, for a year or two."
"Which do you mean? Between one year and two there's all the difference in the world."
"Call it two then," said Isabel with a studied effect of eagerness. [bold mine].
"And what shall I gain by that?" her friend asked with not sign of wincing.
"You'll have obliged me greatly."
"And what will be my reward?"
"Do you need a reward for an act of generosity?"
"Yes, when it involves great sacrifice."
"There's no generosity without some sacrifice.  Men don't understand such things. If you make the sacrifice you'll have all my admiration."
The issue here is not simple.  Isabel is not suffering from "having her cake and eating it too," but the reader is somewhat sympathetic of Caspar.  It is only later, when Isabel succumbs so quickly to Gerald Osmond's proposal that her conversation with Caspar Goodwood becomes problematic inasmuch as Isabel's real sense of freedom and power.  Yet, the reader understands that there are forces beyond Isabel's control here--the same way that there were powers behind her acceptance of Osmond, as Madame Merle orchestrate the union based simply on the benefit to Osmond of Isabel's inheritance.  Lord Warburton also comes to mind, but the reader is not yet to the point of disappointment; Isabel is still calling the proverbial shots.  Her inheritance offers so much freedom that poor Isabel is blinded by its intense shine.  It's not immediate freedom, but freedom in the future, just beyond the Italian horizon.

What strikes me in this re-reading of the novel is that of the sincerity of the language.  What I mean by this is that James at 30-something (when he wrote "The Portrait of a Lady") had already mastered the many variables of language spoken by his characters.  That is to say, he wrote in the "proper" American English of the 1800s for Isabel Archer, Ralph Touchett, Pa' and Ma' Touchett, Caspar Goodwood, and Henrietta Stackpole, at the same time mastering the language system of the Victorian English and the American Expatriates (including the Touchetts); all of these share a single sphere of beautiful dialouge and to add to that, the masterful descriptive passages by the narrator.

There's a great deal of sincerity being offered in the novel, particularly in the dialouge.  There are several clashes between characters that border on the insulting, or at least it does to a 21st Century reader.  The truth is that there's no insulting intended whatsoever, just absolute radical honesty.  Of particular importance is the point-counterpoint of Mrs. Touchett and Henrietta Stackpole:

"We judge from different points of view, evidently," said Mrs. Touchett. "I like to be treated as an individual; you like to be treated as a 'party.'"
"I don't know what you mean," Henrietta replied.  "I like to be treated as an American lady."
"Poor Americans ladies! cried Mrs. Touchett with a laugh.  "They're the slaves of slaves."
"They're the companions of freemen," Henrietta retorted.
"They're the companions of their servants--the Irish chambermaid and the negro waiter.  They share their work."

A couple of things become evident here besides the fact that the women do not like each other very much.  The reader has to theorize how people could talk to each other like that and not come to blows.  The answer, while not evident, can be assessed by the reader as the story enters its Italy chapters: the European Victorians had a penchant for the brutally honest, even if it drove people to feuds or suicide--our American Victorians, while mastering the language, seem to the reader to lack the certain "ring" of it.  Yet, all Victorians retained their civility quite remarkably.  Henry James captures this so well, it is really a testament of his genius.

In the next entry, I will write about Isabel's succumbing to Gerald Osmond, Madame Merle's cruel dealings, Lord Warburton and Pansy Osmond (and particularly Isabel's role as step mother to Pansy and what it all means), and Isabel's final resolution.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Local Library Book Sale -- Beware of Book Dealers Carrying Hi-Tech Equipment

We are proud of our library in this town.  It has been rated the best in the country several times in the last few years.  I support the "Friends of the Library" group and pay my dues religiously.  My experience today, however, left me wondering if my library cares about due paying members of the "Friends of the Library" group. Case in point:  Book dealers who join the "Friends" simply to be able to go in for the preview sale. Some of them come from miles, perhaps even out of state.  I've had this experience several times; one time back in college, I was almost run over by a pair of "book sale pirates," as one of my buddies used to call them.  The incident became the closest to a physical confrontation I've had since leaving the Marine Corps.  At any rate, today's book dealers were curtailed from running, but not of bringing hi-tech equipment.  I saw about a dozen of them carrying hand-held sort of Blackberry thing with a bar code scanner.  When I asked one of them (a lady so as to prevent a physical altercation) what she was doing, she said "I scan them and the computer tells me what I can re-sell it for later."  I believe in free enterprise--hell, I'll even concede some (not many) of the merits of capitalism, but this is quite ridiculous.  Reminded me of those "Speed Traders" on Wall Street with million dollar hi-tech equipment and Ph.D. mathematicians writing algorithms (quite an advantage) and the "mom and pop" financial planner outfit having to compete with that.  So, needless to say--although I suppose I should make the disclaimer--I am not going to re-sell what I bought today.

At any rate, I can't keep complaining.  I "scanned" the shelves and got away with some gems:

1--"Think" by Simon Blackburn (of the series I have "Being Good" and "Truth: A Guide").
2--"Living Fiction" by Annie Dillard.
3--"Answered Prayers" by Truman Capote.
4--"The Dante Club" by Matthew Pearl.
5--"Einstein's Dream" by Alan Lightman (author of "Good Benito," which I found unreadable).
6--"The Wapshot Scandal" by John Cheever (SCORE: First Edition with dust jacket).
7--"Queries and Submissions" by Thomas Clark (Writers book).
8--"The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals" by Maia Allen (Writers book).
9--"The Hour I First Believe" by Wally Lamb (another First Edition, just not as special).
10--"The Complete Stories" by David Malouf.
11--"Final Exam: A Surgeons Reflection on Mortality" by Pauline Chen.
12--"Damage"  by Josephine Hart.
13--"The Gentle Infantryman" by W.Y. Boyd.
14--"West of Kabul, East of New York" by Tamim Ansary

Labels: , ,