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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.

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