James’s Art of Characterization in - The Portrait of a Lady

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      Life is undoubtedly more interesting, more charming and more complex than works of art. But, sometimes works of art seem to have swallowed ‘Life’ itself. Hamlet, King Lear, Heathcliff etc., do have an edge over the flesh and blood individuals. Here only we can understand the remarkable innate innovatory power of a creative artist.

James’s Characters in General

      The Portrait of a Lady a psychological novel and consequently, here the art of characterization is different, based on traditional techniques. In his subtle and complex art of characterization, James has employed various devices to give his characters fullness of conception and a living dynamism. On the other hand, some critics come up with the complaint that James’s characters are unreal. It is so because of the fact that their financial well-being cuts them off from the bitter realities of life. But this is not true since existential stresses always encircle an individual. James never liked to isolate his characters from the world and very much like a transcendentalist he once remarked on the fact of consciousness as a web, as a homogeneous tissue in which inner and outer reality shaded into each other in a blending so subtle that one could hardly specify boundaries. What fiction must present, according to James, is “the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implications of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it.”

      James saw his characters real in some other way too. The fact that he saw them as determined and generally they are wholly settled on a priority basis and the consistency of these characters, endow them with a life of their own. James also advocated that the success of a novel depended upon the degree of ‘representation’ which in turn depended upon the ‘reality of experience of the novelist. This ‘experience of reality’ stems forth from “an immense sensibility,” and a “solidity of specification”, and produces an “illusion of life’’ and not life itself. Art for James was both a budge to life and a retreat from it. Indeed the house of life, and the palace of art become mixed and interchangeable.

The characters are ‘described’ in detail

      James was highly influenced by Turgenev’s method of characterization—the way he placed the characters together and let the story unfold itself from their interaction with one another. The most striking quality of James’s art of characterization is the detailed description of the appearance of a character which helps the reader in understanding better the individuality of that particular character. James does not draw his characters with bold strokes of brush, rather, he draws them in light or shade. Here one is reminded of Charles Dickens who also lavished great care on the physical disposition of a character but the gulf separating Henry James and Charles Dickens can not be bridged so easily, since in James physical disposition of a character is supplemented with moral questions as well. In this connection it is essential, for example, to observe Isabel's description upon her first appearance at Gardencourt and in the flashback scenes which take us back to the house at Albany. Similar is the case with Osmond and Madame Merle who worship at the altar of ‘appearances’ and whose lives are always in danger of being crumbled into nothingness the moment they do away with the ‘appearances’.

      This fact of ‘appearances’ is closely related with the fact that in James it is almost impossible to draw a clear-cut line between the characters and their settings with the intention of keeping them in water-tight compartments. The action of the novel always has some moral cruciality which in turn affects the individuals involved. In Isabel Archer’s case, the life-likeness which this character has is the outcome of James’s fidelity to life itself. Each and every detail of her character is important to grasp the innermost foundations of her conscience. James succeeds here because he presents every detail—her Albany house, her pride, her ignorance, her extraordinary love of independence etc.,—with dramatic vividness.

‘Round’ and ‘Flat’ characters

      James has drawn two types of characters—‘round’ and ‘flat’, Isabel, Ralph, Madame Merle and Osmond exist at a higher level of being and maybe termed, to borrow E. M. Forster’s term—“round” characters. These characters are all acted upon by the situations and they in turn too, act upon the situations. As far as these characters are concerned, we find each and every facet of their personality unraveled to us by and by. The adumbrations, in connection with these characters, always become certainties. There are “flat” characters as well, who exist at a lower level of being. These characters are important and indispensable but they never touch those heights of importance which the ‘round’ characters have touched. Especially prominent in this category are Countess Gemini, Caspar Goodwood, Miss Molyneux, Mr. Bantling, Mr. Touchett. Pansy and Ned Rosier. A study of these characters is reminiscent of the minor characters in the novels of Charles Dickens.

Plot: characters and Thematic - characters

      Some characters in The Portrait of a Lady are important from the plot point of view, while some others contribute in revealing some aspect of the rich and varied theme of the novel, Countess Gemini is an excellent example of a ‘plot’ character. No doubt she is interesting in her own right but her primary function is to talk—she is the one who tells Isabel of Osmond’s “emotional cannibalism” and finally tells her that Pansy is Osmond and Madame Merle’s child. In the same way Mrs. Touchett begins the entire action by taking Isabel to Europe.

      James wrote in the Preface that he will be concerned about character’s relation to himself, to the situations, and to the other characters. Thus his interest in characterization was not for its own sake, he wanted characters to develop and elucidate certain themes. Edward Rosier is a fine example, we get a rather long description of this rootless, disoriented young man who has been “refined” to an extreme. Edward Rosier, Osmond, Madame Merle, all serve to illustrate James’s favourite theme—‘the international theme’. Henrietta Stackpole and Caspar Goodwood—though American ‘expatriates’ do help in the development of the ‘international theme’ in their own characteristic way. They are those representatives of American culture who do not become Europeanized. In some senses Isabel’s whole experience is nothing but a development of this very theme.

“Free” and “Fixed” characters

      In the Preface James speaks of characters who are but wheels to the coach and those who are of its body and who have a seat inside. Some characters belong to the conventional world of social appearances. Miss Molyneux, Lord Warburton’s sister, for instance with “such an air of heredity quite about them”, but quite without personality; or the amiable colonists from America in Paris whose lives are, “though luxurious, inane.” Pansy, the convent-bred flower, has no mind of her own and always submits to authority. Mrs. Touchett, Countess Gemini, Edward Rosier all belong to this category of “fixed” characters.

      In contrast to these, we have characters who have great potentials for free development in their own natures—no matter good or evil. Such characters are again both Americans as well as Europeans. The two full-length evil characters are American expatriates, Osmond and Madame Merle. Lord Warburton, Caspar Goodwood, Henrietta Stackpole, Mr. Bantling—all love a free exploration of life, though they can’t go beyond the confines of society.

The Central Intelligence

      James consistently uses a chosen centre of attraction in order to bring the novel into sharp focus. Essentially this is a means of “locating” his story so that the way in which the story is told becomes a part of the story itself. The point-of-view character or the “central intelligence” as James called this narrator, always presents a creative sense and the reader feels a particular consciousness to be shaping the events of the story.

      In The Portrait of a Lady, one should be careful about what one believes, or at least, chooses to place most emphasis on Madame Merle’s descriptions have a way of suiting the occasion, just as the Countess’s revelations about the Florentine society should be examined for authenticity. As the shades of truth become more delicate one’s reading or attention must become more careful. Discovering, who is telling the whole truth, therefore, is the essence of a careful reading of James.

      The invalid Ralph Touchett, born of American parents, but thoroughly Europeanised is in a sense the “central intelligence” in the book. He is the Marlow or Mr. Stein whose consciousness is more delicately aware than anybody else of the whole pattern of values and relationships of the group. He represents the yardstick of civilized mature emotion and understanding against which all the other characters are measured.

Character and Incident

      James felt that, in the writing process, all action should proceed from character. In “the Art of Fiction” he explains, “what is character but the determination of incident ? What is incident but the illustration of character ?” For the writer to clearly define the personality of his character, is to predict how that character will behave. Action, then becomes for James essentially behavior, and there is little use in such a scheme for outside, arbitrary events. This would explain why James’s novels are relatively lacking independence on historical incidents or natural disasters.

      In the Preface James tells us that “this single cornerstone, the conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny, had begun with being all my outfit for the large building of The Portrait of a Lady”. Wondering how to tackle this theme, the author hit upon the method he will use: “Place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s own consciousness 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 scale of her relation to herself.” “What will she do with herself?” This is the question that Henry James asks in the Preface, Ralph asks in the novel, and we ask ourselves while reading the novel.

      As the novel proceeds we see that the action is a direct result of Isabel’s determination and decisions. External events do not bring about a change in Isabel’s fortunes. External events such as wars, accidents, historical events or the overt intervention of other people seems to pass casually by the side of Isabel. Other characters, such as old Daniel Touchett, Madame Merle, Mrs. Touchett, Henrietta may support or keep her decisions but the original and basic motivations always belong to Isabel.

      For example, structurally the inheritance is essential but Isabel’s motives and her original enthusiasm are hardly affected by it. The same is true of Mrs. Touchett who brings Isabel to Europe. Isabel’s relations with Madame Merle and Osmond are ultimately directed by her own enthusiasm. Certainly she was provided with alternatives, but it was her desire to pursue her ‘fate’ that left her oblivious to schemes and traps which her inexperience was powerless to detect.

      James’s triumph in keeping Isabel in the foreground is achieved by centring much of the story in her consciousness, “without her sense of them (her adventures), without her sense for them. They are next to nothing at all, but isn’t the beauty and difficulty just in showing their mystic conversion by that sense into the stuff...of the story ?” James cites two triumphant instances of “conversion”. The first when Isabel finds Madame Merle, absorbed and serene, a stranger playing the piano at Gardencourt, and has a sense that her destiny is to be tied to this woman, and the second Isabel’s midnight meditative vigil, when she is “under the spell of recognitions on which she finds the last sharpness suddenly to wait.” The former instance seems to him to “produce the maximum intensity with the minimum of strain, vivacity of incident and all the economy of picture”, and to throw the action further forward than “twenty incidents, might have done.”

Isabel - the Nucleus

      The other characters do play their respective roles in the novel, but they are either protons or electrons. Nucleus is always Isabel. In every way, we find that Isabel’s character is the Controlling factor in the plot and the element which in one way or another focuses and controls everything that happens in the novel.


      James’s art of characterization is unprecedentedly good in The Portrait of a Lady. No antecedent novelist had used his characters in such a completely contributory way. James had realized his aim to create a truly “big” novel, comments Cargill in The Novels of Henry James.

University Questions

Write a critical note on James's art of characterization in The Portrait of a Lady,
“Despite her deeply repressed sexuality, Isabel remains among the most complex, the most fully realized and the most humanly fascinating of James’s characters.” Discuss this statement.
How far is James an innovator in the field of characterization?

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