Imagery and Metaphor in - The Portrait of a Lady

Also Read

      “It is an important fact about James’s art that he gave up what he considered the claptrap of romance without giving up its mystery and beauty.” F. R. Leavis regards James as a ‘poetnovelist’ and says that he combines Jane Austen’s skill of observing and dramatizing manners with Hawthorne’s ‘profoundly moral and psychological...poetic art of fiction.’ It is a fact that in James’s novel, though romance does not shine in all its shades and colors but the glow of poetry which it imparts to the, realistic substance of the novel is endurable. Leavis says the same thing in a different language : “James’s own constant and profound concern with spiritual facts expresses itself not only in what obviously demands to be called symbolism but in the handling of character, episode, and dialogue, and in the totality of the plot, so that when he seems to offer a novel of manners, he gives us more than that and the ‘poetry’ is the major.”

Imagery and Metaphor add a ‘poetic’ glow

      Imagery and Metaphor have their lion’s share in enlivening the ‘poetry’ of the novel in The Portrait of a Lady. Undoubtedly the conscious assimilation of romance into the novelistic substance of the novel mingled with the language and enriched the novel with an enormous use of metaphor.

      The use of imagery may be considered a prerogative of the poet but even dramatists and novelists never feel hesitation in the exploration of this virgin realm. Now before going into a proper study of the use of metaphor and imagery in The Portrait of a Lady, it will be helpful to glance at the significance of these two elements in drama and fiction in general.

      In poetry, images have their undisputable function, in close connection with the ever-widening horizons of a poem. But, in drama and fiction, images serve a much more varied purpose. In drama and fiction, they help us a lot in understanding the character, in coming to grips with the tone and atmosphere of that particular novel. According to Patrick Murry, ‘‘firstly the part played by recurrent images in evoking the distinctive atmosphere of a play and in keeping before our minds its underlying mood of leit-motivif; secondly, the role of imagery in expressing and helping elucidate themes; thirdly the contribution it makes to the revelation and individualization of the dramatis personae. To detach any of these functions from the other and to examine it separately is of course, an arbitrary proceeding, since none of these elements of the play - characters, themes, plots, atmosphere and so on - can exist in isolation from the whole. Some such abstraction is nevertheless necessary for the sake of critical discussion.” Patrick Muray, who wrote this in his study of Shakespearean imagery goes on to observe : “In drama the characters are portrayed and differentiated largely through language; in poetic drama it is natural to expect that poetic imagery should play a significant part in fulfilling these functions. Some critics indeed are prepared to make the larger claim that a portrait of each Shakespearean character could almost be built up from a study of imagery alone, while this may be partly true of these tragedies (e.g. King Lear, Hamlet etc.), it will scarcely hold either for all plays or the Romances”.

      Similarly enough, Metaphors offered to James a kind of repository or annexe in which the latent extravagance of his imagination could take form. In this novel the use of metaphor is an important critical aspect for the novel’s true and proper evaluation.

Role of figurative language and images in James’s late novels

      James evidently regarded his highly figurative late style as a way of gaining clarity, richness and vividness. Language is “representational”, words convey “appearances, images, figures, objects, so many important, so many contributive items of the furniture of world” In the late novels, the figures are often extravagant, even violent; they appear in the dialogue of characters as well as in the reporting of the author, but they serve, to elucidate, dramatize, and melodramatize characters and situation, rather than to equate them with something external.

Architectural Images

      Architectural references abound both in the Preface and in the novel itself. To Ralph, Isabel is a remarkable ‘edifice’: “he looked in at the windows and received an impression of proportions equally fair. But he felt that he saw it only by glimpses and that he had not as yet stood under the roof. The door was fastened...” ; and when Ralph tells Isabel that he keeps a group of musicians in his ante-room, Isabel says that “she would have liked to pass through the ante-room, as her cousin called it, and enter the private apartments.” Indeed, we can almost see the ebb and flow of
Isabel’s life by reference to the houses and rooms where she spends some of her intense and intimate moments from the run-down office in Albany, the comforting, picturesque spaciousness of Gardencourt through the ‘castle in a legend’ of Lockleigh, Mrs. Touchett’s. Florentine palace, Osmond ancient villa, the hotel ill which Osmond blurts out his proposal, the Palazzo Roccanero, and finally the ‘prison’-like convent. We see that each of these architectures, is a sufficient clue to come to terms with Isabel’s emotional and spiritual growth. These images are a good illustration of the ideal which James found in Ibsen namely the “talent for producing an intensity of interest by means incorruptibly quiet, by an almost, demure preservation of the usual.”

      Besides this, fine arts provide a lot of sustenance to imagery in The Portrait of a Lady. Isabel chooses books by their frontispieces, and insists on viewing the paintings at Gardencourt even in the shadowy light; Ralph thinks of his cousin as ‘finer than the finest work of art, than a Greek bas-relief, than a great Titan, than a Gothic cathedral’. The scenes of novel’s action frequently occur in art galleries, museums and ruins. To Isabel, Madame Merle seems a bust of Juno or Niobe; and after Mrs. Touchett death” Mrs. Touchett finds Isabel looking ‘as solemn as a Madonna? Osmond himself believes that ‘one ought to make one’s life a work of art’ and he succeeds in making Isabel and Pansy as perfect objects of art to decorate his villa. Even Henrietta has a ‘special devotion’ to a Correggio in the Uffizi. All this sufficiently, establishes the milieu in which James’s characters move. Such imagery is also intimately bound up with the question of ‘seeing’ which is central to all of James’s major work—Isabel must, first of all, understand the multiplicity of forms which surround her and then understand the intentions which are hidden in those forms, before she finds herself capable of achieving one of her most frequently asserted ambitions that of ‘judging’.

Water Imagery

      The ‘water imagery’ is a recurrent one in the novel. When Ralph learns that Isabel is engaged to Osmond, he is described as drifting about in the house ‘like a rudderless vessel in a rocky stream’. Later, we find Isabel reflecting on the reasons for her marriage to Osmond—she remembers her initial feeling for him, he was ‘like a skeptical voyager strolling on beach, while he waited the tide’, and she determines to launch his boat for him. New dimensions of meaning encircle the water imagery as the novel reaches its conclusion. When Goodwood wants Isabel to start all afresh, she feels that ‘the world, in truth, had never seemed too large;. I seemed to open out, all around her, to take the form of a mighty sea, where she floated in fathomless water. She wanted help, and here was help: it had come in rushing torrent’. Isabel is almost: swept away by the torrent, by “the noise of waters, all the rest of it..” in her own swimming head. When he kisses her, every disagreeable fact about his bard manhood passes before her eyes: so had she heard of those wrecked and underwater following a train of images before they ‘sink’. Isabel’s fear,—no matter what its implications are—is fully conveyed to us by the means of water-imagery.

Imagery from warfare and military strategy

      There is frequent use of such imagery which is not very striking.

Metaphors are daring in the novel

      Richard Chase has made a detailed study of the metaphors employed by Henry James in this novel. The metaphors of The Portrait of a Lady are notably daring, so much so that sometimes setting aside all the entanglements and encrustations related to them in the realms of the novel, they start leading a life of their own. Ordinarily, James’s metaphors are not quaint and concise. They are suggestively imaginative and they are likely to be given a tone of elevated levity which at once enjoys what is being said and takes note of its extravagance. The Jamesian metaphors do show a fine intermingling of serious poetic imagination with humor which we find in other American writers, notably Melville, Mark Twain, and Faulkner. Ralph Touchett says: “I keep a band of music in my ante-room. It has orders to play without stopping; it renders me two excellent, services. It keeps the sounds of the world from reaching my private apartments, and it makes the world think that dancing is going on within. It was dance music indeed that you usually heard when you come within earshot of Ralph’s band ; the liveliest Waltzes seemed to float upon the air. Isabel often found herself irritated by this perpetual fiddling; she would have liked to pass through the ante-room, as her cousin called it, and enter the private apartments... It was half-hospitality to let her remain outside.”

The houses and gardens serve to interpret the inhabitants metaphorically

      The idea of leaving and entering a house, the contrast of different kinds of houses, the question of whether a house is a prison or an opportunity for exploration and freedom etc., are the substance of the metaphors in The Portrait of a Lady, Dark houses metaphorically render Isabel’s history. When disillusionment takes place, Isabel regards her marriage as “the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air, Osmond’s beautiful mind indeed seems to peep down from a small high window and mock at her.” Rosier finds Osmond’s villa as a fortress imprisoning his lady-love. The Rome palace duplicates the imprisoning house at Albany where Isabel’s history begins - it is the Albany house all overdone again in the grand style. All critical events in Isabel’s career occur in houses, not in the gardens. Isabel loved the houses for their spatial beauty. She was right. The ‘house’ in which she decided to pour out her feelings and emotions turned out to be her greatest success and her greatest failure. The garden, at Gardencourt, where Isabel receives and rejects proposals of marriage from Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood, consequently becomes an inevitable part of the general metaphor which represents the enriched sensibility of the heroine: “She was always planning out her development, desiring her perfection, observing her progress. Her nature had, in her conceit, a certain garden like quality, a suggestion of perfume and murmuring boughs of shady bowers, and lengthening vistas, which made her feel that introspection was, after all, an exercise in the open air, and that a visit to the recesses of one’s spirit was harmless when one returned from it with a lapful of roses.”

      In a novel which describes a fall from innocence, it is suitable that the tragic action should be metaphorically mirrored in the heroine’s mind by these beautifully imaginative metaphors of the house and the garden, in which the garden stands for the pre-lapserian state and the house for a civilization that has done away with its innocence but has gained, along with corruption, wisdom, maturity; and the whole involved and valuable accretion of culture.


      We can conclude from the foregoing discussion that the elaborate use of imagery and metaphor, besides sprinkling a poetic touch has enabled the novelist to express his aesthetic vision with a marked effectiveness and power.

Previous Post Next Post