Problem of the ‘emigre’ American in The Portrait of a Lady

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      James concept of American - European differences. Henry James was born and brought up in America. Hence there is no wonder if he were to yearn for experiencing the conditions leisure Parents were rich enough and they had leisure enough to make frequent trips to Europe by means of steamers more than a century before. He also accompanied them and these trips increased his desire to associate himself with the cultural elite in Europe for the purpose of imbibing the aesthetic environment of the Salons, the Cathedrals, art galleries, etc, of Europe. But this yearning for the attainment of cultural refinement could be realized only by sacrificing a bit of his native spiritual reserves. This is a peculiarly American predicament. Hence the mature James began to portray America as representing spiritual health and beauty while Europe was portrayed as wallowing in spiritual and moral squalor. He began to see his countrymen mostly as innocents abroad confronting the vast civilization of the West and usually triumphing over the more cultivated but also more corrupt Europeans. Later on when he became more broadminded he outlived the vestiges of narrowmindedness and began thinking in the lines of evolving a synthetic culture, a finer civilization than either American or European. James became occupied with the larger themes of life as against the portrayal of the social and mental problems of the emigre American. He viewed the international theme only as an aid to the development of his main plot and the consummation of his narrative skill.

      Emigres Characters. All the major characters except perhaps Lord Warburton and some minor characters in The Potrait of a Lady are ‘emigre’ Americans. The different characters are of course in different ethical, moral and spiritual set up. Ralph and Isabel represent the better and nobler types of these ‘emigres’ while Osmond and Madame Merle represent the baser and more vulgar of these people. Isabel becomes a mature, morally conscious lady by the end of the novel though she begins as a young, vivacious and hopeful yet ingenious lady artlessly ignorant of the suphisticated atmosphere of Europe. Madame Merle is an enigmatic person who betrayed Isabel by not preventing her marriage to Osmond. In this the reason was her eagerness to ensure the security of her illegitimate child, Pansy, by Osmond even at the cost of Isabel’s security. She thus became a plotter to bring about a situation from which Isabel could extricate herself only by means of great sacrifice.

      Problems of emigres: Innocence versus experience and depravity. Daniel Touchett is painted as an emigre who lived in England for nearly thirty years without losing his American identity. The other characters Osmond, Madame Merle etc. lose their identities quickly. One of the problems of these emigres from America is that of cultural assimilation. The Touchetts do not lose their identities but the others do so. Madame Merle began, to speak French like a French lady, thus absorbing the European personality completely.

      Another problem is that the transplanted American is threatened with a spiritual truncation in Europe. European experience can be traumatic and even deadly for the American innocence. If the American goes to Europe in search of cultural values, he most often ends up in a deep involvement in European moral values of the glamorous type. The seeker is compelled to seclude himself and suffer the consequences of his mistakes. As one of the critics has said the American freedom is incompatible with the European experience.

      Isabel ceases to be a vibrant person and becomes nothing better than a museum-piece, a Madonna. Her vitality and exuberance get ‘lost and she returns to Rome’ by ‘transcendentalizing good manners’ as J I.M. Stewart has aptly put.

      Some of the idlers, the American crowd in Paris, lead an existence of no proper aim or purpose in life, a worthless nugatory drifting existence. Osmond is a polished idler, indolent, slothful dilettante as Isabel realizes rather too late.

      Physical suffering. The sufferings that Americans have to undergo are not confined to mental and spiritual problems alone. Physical discomforts of slow moving European trains are adversely commented upon by Caspar Goodwood. Henrietta continuously alludes to the poverty of European hotels. She is critical of the easy-going nature of the European rich man with, more servants than the members of his family.

      The American emigre of puritanical views and high moral caliber views the society in Europe as depraved if not thoroughly morally bankrupt. There are some characters like Mrs. Lydia Touchett who absorb the best in both the societies. She is cosmopolitan in her views as well. She has the European lady’s innate comprehension of the traditions of European art and culture. All these problems are exquisitely treated of by James in almost all his later novels and particularly in The Portrait of a Lady.

      Conclusion. To summarise the problems of the emigres, they are (1) the conflict between the moral sense of the American and the civilized, glamorous sophistication of the European gentleman ; (2) danger of cultural assimilation of the unwary emigre and his becoming more Europeanized than the natives or Europe ; (3) the certainty of trivialization of the emigre in Europe like the idlers in Paris ; (4) the complex fate of an American undertaking a quest of knowledge in Europe—that of an innocent experiencing a lot to his own detriment, and finally (5) the shock of realizing that the European atmosphere is a testing ground for the conscience of the American thoroughly confident, to the extent of complacency, of his own moral vitality.

University Questions

Examine James’s treatment of the problem of the ‘emigre’ American in The Portrait of a Lady,
‘James saw his Americans largely as innocents confronting the vast civilization of the West and usually triumphing over the more cultivated but also more corrupt Europeans,’ Discuss.

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