The Ending of the Novel - The Portrait of a Lady

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      The ‘beginnings’ never trouble us, the ‘endings’ sometimes do. The problem of conception, of birth, of life never sets us thinking with that intensity, care and concern as the problem of ‘ending’, namely of death, does. Works of art are not very far from such considerations. Similar is the case with The Portrait of a Lady

      The ending of The Portrait of a Lady has been hotly debated by the major Jamesian critics. Some critics find the ending completely consistent with Isabel’s character and also a long-awaited and extremely fitting climax to the novel’s dramatic, ethical and imagistic structures. Some critics, on the other hand, keep groping for a grain of justification in this problem of ending. The idea of an open ending too has been raised. The controversy is centered on Isabel’s return to Rome and her decision to live with her husband.

Criticism of the Ending

      Conrad, a great novelist felt that the novel ends as an “episode in life end.’’ There is no sense of finality which a more sentimental or conventional novelist might have given to the novel. The views of Quentin Anderson is that Isabel’s return to Rome is fully consistent, He says : “Isabel’s return to Rome, the house of life in which she encountered her other self, is emblematically consistent, although it may seem to the reader of the novel to depend too much on an exaggerated idea of marriage, or an exaggerated estimate of Isabel’s ability to help Pansy Osmond, who, as the novel presents her, is in a hopeless position.” Critics like F.O. Matthiessen are of the view that the ending of the novel is “an open ending” and the reader is at full liberty to draw his conclusions.

      Arnold Kettle, in his essay, tries to propagate the idea that there is “an inverted triumph” involved in Isabel’s return to Rome; Marion Montgomery is also critical of the ending: “As the novel stands, the conclusion seems a romantically conceived unhappy ending, an almost heroic renunciation, but a renunciation that appears unjustified.” Dorothea Krook and David Galloway come
up with a proper perspective to judge the aesthetic and moral propriety of the ending of the novel.

James himself had Anticipated Difficulty

      No single reason or explanation of Isabel’s return to Rome, in favor or in opposition, can entirely satisfy. Even those readers, who are in sympathy with all sorts of happenings in the novel, are often troubled by the ending. A kind of embitterment always awaits such sympathetic readers. What takes Isabel back to Rome, back to the old evil and old servitude, is not described. Her reasons and motivations for returning to Rome are as ambiguous, as complex as her reasons and motivations for marrying Osmond. Henry James had himself anticipated the difficulty. He did realize that some of his readers might find fault with the conclusion:

      “The obvious criticism of course will be that it is not finished— that I have not Seen the heroine to the end of her situation—that I have left her in the air. This is both true and false. The whole of anything is never told: you can only take what groups together; What I have done has that unity—it groups together. It is complete in itself—and the rest may be taken up or not, later.

The Ending does not Demand Justification, the Justification is Inherent in it:

      The problem of justifying the ending is not as grave and disturbing as it may seem at a first glance. By the end of chapter fifty-two ‘the portrait’ of Isabel that we have seen, has prepared us for the forthcoming events. In the harmony of anticipated and awaited: incidents, and happenings Isabel’s return to Rome is not a discordant note. Now we proceed to try and analyze the possible reasons for Isabel’s return to Rome.

The contribution of Isabel’s Character is Immense

      The image of Isabel, that we encounter in the opening chapters, leaves a stamp on us. Isabel is a person of many theories and we know, that she married Osmond because of her devotion and dedication to the theories. Her imagination is not only strong but ridiculously active too. When she comes to England we find that she has the habit of viewing life through the medium of literature. She is seeking a general impression of life to which she can add footnotes later. We also find that confrontation is her intense passion and she won’t succumb to the limitations, the encrustations or the compulsions. When she decides to marry Osmond, it may seem that she has gained wisdom, overcome her confusions as she herself tells Ralph: “I’ve seen it (life). It doesn’t look to me now... One must choose a corner and cultivate that”. But all this is just a disastrous and a further turn of the screw. Certain remote flashes of change might be there, but of wisdom and mental growth, there are none. After her marriage with Osmond it seems she has retreated within herself an account of her and Osmond’s great desire to keep ‘appearances’.

      Besides this her return to Osmond also involves, to a large extent, the alternatives given to her in her particular cast of mind at that time.

Isabel could Divorce her Husband

      Some readers and critics find it as the best and easiest way that Isabel could take up to free herself from the tangles of Osmond. But such a course of conduct would not, have been in consonance with her character. Her view of marriage is obviously the guiding force here. Marriage for her, if we love to talk in the jargon of law, is not only a ‘contract’ or a ‘sacrament’ but also a complete commitment which is substantially indissoluble even under the gravest circumstances. In the earlier parts of the story, this is implicit in the exalted view she takes of her marriage to Osmond; in later parts, it is several times explicitly mentioned as a prime reason for her reluctance to leave, or even to defy her husband. In chapter forty-two and elsewhere, we see Isabel taking a very serious view of marriage. In chapter fifty-one Osmond’s ‘‘grave” and “serious” appeal to Isabel’s belief in the sanctity of marriage struck a deeper chord in Isabel’s heart than she knew at that time. Thus we find that she views her marriage as the most serious and the single sacred act of her life, and when Henrietta wonders at her not leaving Osmond, she replies: “I can’t change that way... I married him before all the world; I was perfectly free; it was impossible to do anything more deliberate. One can’t change that way.”

      Isabel gives consent, in full knowledge of its cost, and possible horrors to the ‘undertaking of matrimony’. And through her action she makes commitment to the “ghastly form” which even in its hollowness sustains the memory and possibility of the ‘magnificent form’. The institution of marriage holds forth the possible reconciliation of their mutual antagonism, of choosing with the making of knowledge, duty and enjoyment. With conscious calculation and form, L.B. Holland in The Expense of Vision makes an apt remark: ‘‘If her return to life and to marriage makes the bond more demanding to a form of obligation, it also makes of the woman’s role something more dignified than mere formalistic, differential, and passive assent; it founds, marriage in part on the vigorous determination which Isabel has displayed in choosing a husband before and which now takes her back to play an active role in the ‘scene’ she can anticipate when viewed in the context provided by the other marriages in the novel. Isabel’s action now, like her act, in marrying Osmond originally, founds the institution in part on the active consent of the woman. In her combination of resolute independence of act with her insistence on the strictness of the bond in her determination to play a role as parents and the prospect unlikely though it is to be achieved, of Ned’s and Pansy’s union, the novel prefigures some of the conspicuous features of marriage in modern America. Isabel, with her banked sources of money, her stern conscience, her imagination and her determination is made to pay the novel’s high price”.

Isabel does not want to ‘Publish’ her Mistake

      Although Isabel regards Osmond as ‘malignant’, yet she shares with him a belief in appearances. Time and again in the novel we get glimpses of Isabel’s dislike of expressing her real feelings, even to Ralph. She does not desire in the least to make a public confession of her mistake in choosing Osmond as her husband. She tells Henrietta: “But I can’t publish my mistake. I don’t think that’s decent. I’d rather die......One must accept one’s deeds” She also recognized that “in his wish to preserve appearances, he was after all sincere, and this as far as it went, was a merit”. When Osmond appealed to Mrs. Osmond to “accept the consequences of our action” he spoke “in the name of something sacred and precious—the observance of a magnificent form “Isabel, too has a deep-seated respect for form, and a deep sense of the values which underlie it, which compel her to take her share of “the consequences of our action”.

      Therefore, among other things, perhaps her return to Rome is prompted by a desire to hide her mistake from the world and by a desire to maintain appearances. It is perhaps in this shared desire to maintain appearances that Osmond has had a “blighting influence” upon Isabel.

Isabel’s Promise to Pansy

      It is often argued that Isabel in her return to Rome is motivated by her sense of duty towards Pansy and her promise to the girl that she would return. It is probably the highest indication of her intense awareness that above all else she honors promise. For, she is not capable of any duplicity of toward another person after what she has been through and after what she has learned.

      Besides the special motive provided by Pansy and Pansy's need of her, which is explicitly emphasized in the novel, we are supposed to remember that loyalty or ‘devotion’ is a conspicuous and not an easily dispensable element of Isabel Archer’s nature. Gilbert Osmond had recognized it from the beginning: “I like her very much”, he had said to Madame Merle. “She’s all you described her, and into the bargain capable, I feel of great devotion”. This is admittedly confirmed in Isabel’s midnight vigil when, reflecting on Osmond’s hatred of her ideas she calls her to witness that “she had opinions that she would not have been eager to sacrifice in the satisfaction of feeling herself loved for it; and this devotion or loyalty may be seen as a function of the moral consistency that springs so naturally, it seems, from her moral seriousness”.

The Alternatives open to Isabel

      Besides the alternatives of open-ending, or Isabel’s marriage to Ralph, there are readers who wish that the novel should end with Isabel divorcing her husband and marrying Caspar Goodwood instead. However mistaken such a desire for happy ending might be, it can be somewhat exonerated by taking into account the special claims that James himself makes in favor of Goodwood.

      Isabel had said, in the earlier chapters of the novel that she must someday ‘make terms’ with this young man and one should add that she feels these would be “terms which would be certain to be favorable to himself”. The idea of eventual maturity, in this respect, is likewise suggested when, after describing her childish theories of marriage, James goes on to observe: “Deep in her soul, it was the deepest thing there—lay a belief that if a certain light should dawn she could give herself completely”.

      It is not possible to say that all this points to Goodwood, but James does pick up the idea and the imagery in the last scene where Goodwood makes his final appearance. Not only do his words drop “deep into her soul” but in his arms Isabel feels that she had never been love before”. But if one takes not a surface, but a deeper view of the values of the novel and not just it's few scattered and covert hints of sexuality, if one remembers that in this novel love involves intelligence, emotional sensitivity as well as sex, then Goodwood as a possible resolution disappears at once. We may conclude, that Caspar Goodwood could never make Isabel happy. When Isabel decides to go back to Osmond, she has moved too far beyond Caspar Goodwood in both refinement and intensity, even forgetting her fear of the sexual. Good wood’s scheme for beginning a new life, like the plans for ‘escape’ which Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale concoct in The Scarlet Letter is nothing more than the stuff of fantasy, simply because Isabel does not love him.

      If we love to compare Isabel with Emma, wilful and capricious to the end, James has not considered the prospect of a Mr. Knightley to save her. The only Knightley James could see was the dying Ralph. But by the time Isabel arrives at a final understanding with Ralph, not only is he already dead but she herself is half in love with easeful death: “I would die, if you could live. But I don’t wish you to live, I would die myself”. This is the choice she makes. “Death death, death, death, death,”—this is the final word, “the clew that Isabel’s story, like the sea in Whitman’s poem out of the Cradle endlessly rocking, seems to have whispered into the ear of his creator. Ralph embraces physical death, Isabel embraces spiritual death.

      It does not mean that Goodwood has no existence in the novel, on a deeper level. It is precisely the last encounter between Isabel and Caspar Goodwood which makes Isabel shed her lethargy and become aware of her duty. The symbolism of the ‘lightning’ like kiss and the sea-imagery convey a powerful temptation to Isabel’s fired soul, but she overcomes the temptation by running back to the house, which symbolizes the securities of civilization. “She had never known where to turn; she knew now. There was a straight path”.

Isabel felt that she must accept the Consequences of her Actions

      Moreover, she felt that bearing the consequences of every act was a corollary to her exercise of free will and she has enough devotion to her original purpose and enough awareness not to try and get out of her decision by going back on a promise or deserting Pansy whose similar lot in life has produced a close bond between them. She chooses to remain with Osmond rather than accept a new life with Caspar Goodwood. For it is in this renunciation that James reveals the extent of her self-awareness and the honest self-appraisal with which she accepts the consequences of her own acts. There is no one else to blame even though Ralph feels he is partially responsible. Isabel has pursued her “carriage through the night” and she now realizes the results of her journey are hers and hers alone.

      Setting as she does close to the ruins of Rome where she repeatedly consoles herself in the company of history and the company of Pansy, she accepts the consequences of her own acts.

Realisation of the Universality of Suffering has dawned upon her

      One of the lessons learnt by Isabel is that she must come to terms with the circumstances imposed upon her by Fate. She has learnt, from her marriage to Osmond that suffering has universality, and must be accepted. After the disclosure of Countess Gemini, Isabel makes a solitary excursion to be alone with her thoughts. We find a bruised and erring spirit absorbing strengthening reminders and consoling clues from the marred but splendid debris of human habitations of the past : “She had long before taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruins of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that crumbled for centuries and yet were still upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places”.

      Furthermore, in the works of Henry James suffering is a supreme discipline—it is the price one pays for being able to feel; Mrs. Touchett has escaped it, and therefore has escaped living. Mrs. Touchett has given up the possibility of grief in denying herself anything beyond the most business like human engagement for her, Ralph’s life was not ‘successful’ because he was unhealthy, whereas for Isabel it was a ‘beautiful one’. Confronted by her aunt’s dryness, Isabel can only think that:

      ‘‘Unmistakably she would have found it a blessing today to be able to feel a defeat, a mistake, even a shame. She wondered if she were not even missing those enrichments of consciousness and privately trying—reaching out for some after taste of life, dregs of the banquet, the testimony of pain or the cold recreation of remorse.” The tears which Isabel sheds at the funeral are a sign that life will not harden her, that it will not dry up the splendidly human resources she has displayed: “There were; tears in Isabel’s eyes, but they were not tears that blinded. She looked through them at the beauty of the day, the splendor, the sweetness of the old English churchyard, the bowed heads of good friends”.


      We conclude from this discussion that the more convincing view of the ending of this novel is that it is not a forced but a natural part of James’s design and pattern of the novel. No doubt, no explanation of her return to Osmond can entirely satisfy but her return consistency enough rounds out her chronicle and defends the verisimilitude of the end of the novel.

University Questions

State the controversy about the ending of the novel and express your own views on the matter.
Why does Isabel return to Osmond at the end of the novel? Is this a satisfactory ending for the novel?
The ending of The Portrait of a Lady Has been hotly debated by the major Jamesian critics. Examine some of the leading criticism to highlight its significance.
(a) “Isabel’s return to Rome, the house of life in which she has encountered her other self, is emblematically consistent, although it may seem to the reader of the novel to depend too much on an exaggerated idea of marriage, or an exaggerated estimate of Isabel’s ability to help Pansy Osmond, who, as the novel presents her, is in a hopeless position”. (Quentin Anderson)
(b) “As the novel stands, the conclusion seems a romantically conceived unhappy ending, an almost heroic renunciation, but a renunciation that appears unjustified”., (Marion Montgomery)
Which of the above two views do you find more convincing? Give reasons for your answer.
How far does Isabel’s growth depend on her decision to return to Osmond?
What new facts of Isabel’s character are uncovered by her decision to leave Gardencourt at the end of the novel ?
Write a critical note on the ending of the novel in connection with the view that “no simple explanation of Isabel’s rejection of Warburton and Goodwood and her acceptance of Osmond will suffice. Her actions involve complex motivation.

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