The International Theme of The Portrait of a Lady

Also Read

      There are no moorings, no compulsions, no limits to the mind and heart of a creative artist. An ambition to be something unprecedented, something in new and glowing colors is perhaps ingrained in him. This is perfectly true of Henry James whose contribution to ‘Novel’ is an indisputable one. One of the striking aspects of his novels is the ‘the International theme’.

Why was James drawn to the International Theme ?

      James held a high opinion of American character and wrote: “I think that to be an American is an excellent preparation for culture. We have exquisite qualities as a race, and it seems to me that we are ahead of the European races in the fact that more than either of them we can deal freely with forms of civilizations not our own, can pick and assimilate and in short (aesthetically etc.,) claim our property wherever we find it we must of course have something of our own—something distinctive and homogeneous—and I take it that we shall find it in our moral consciousness, our unprecedented spiritual lightness and vigor”. Despite his love for and high opinion of American character, he was drawn to the international theme because he felt that there was some inadequacy in the naive American environment.

      Ezra Pound writes: “In his books he (Henry James) showed race against race, immutable; the essential Americanness or Englishness or Frenchness.., not flag-waving and treaties, not the machinery of government but ‘why’ there is always misunderstanding, why men of different race are not the same.”

      James also felt immediate sympathy for Nathaniel Hawthrone’s lament that ‘no other, without a trial, can conceive the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity in broad and simple daylight, ? is happily the case with my dear native land”. However, there is an element of poetry in the novel which makes it akin to romance.

The Historical Background

      The international theme keeps bubbling up on almost every page in The Portrait of a Lady because, Henry James during the period in which he wrote this novel (1879-81) loved to discuss the theme of contrasts and comparisons of American and European civilizations. We must keep in mind that the American isolationism of the mid-nineteenth century had crept into the American literature and the average American mind. Europe, on the other hand, was supposed to hold sharing prospects for the unwitting American. This was so, especially because America’s contemporary relations with England, France and Spain were not smooth enough. Some intelligent Americans like Hawthorne, Henry James Snr., Henry James Jr, and later on Henry Adams, tried hard to do away with the American phobia of the period and thus started exploring in the virgin realms of European history, philosophy and culture As a result of this, towards the end of the 19th century the leisure-class Americans started seeking accommodations in cities like Paris, Berlin, Vienna and London.

The Conflict of American and European Cultures

      In The Portrait of a Lady James explores the fact that each society has its own cultural complex, its own personality, its own character and that each society inculcates certain values, certain Sanskar into its members, which are always at variance with the values and Sanskars of the other society. The clash of individuals, products of two different cultures is not a clash of their personalities or of their characters but a clash of culture is essential. In this novel James has juxtaposed the American with European qualities. From the opening pages one becomes aware of an interest in the difference between American and European cultures and ideals; the Touchetts, lsabel Goodwood, and Henrietta are all transplanted Americans. Throughout the novel we witness the dilemma of the comparatively naive America, the product of a young, democratic, and essentially unsophisticated culture set against the ancient regulation and unspoken mores of Europe.

      For instance, self-reliance (we find this in Isabel, Henrietta Stackpole as well as Caspar Goodwood), a high moral sense (in Isabel, Henrietta, Goodwood), a deep awareness of the importance of work (not only in Henrietta and Goodwood but also in Isabel who is critical of the roving Americans she meets in Paris), brashness and presumptuousness (especially in Henrietta) etc., are the American qualities exhibited in the novel. On the other hand, a facility of expression and exquisiteness of behavior (Lord Warburton, Ralph) a highly developed interest and liking for literature and arts (in the talk of Ralph, Warburton, Madame Merle, Osmond, and even Mrs. Touchett there is no lack of references to arts and literature), certain tacit values and norms, and a sophisticated awareness and respect of other people’s privacy, individuality, are some of the basic European values underlined in the novel.

Isabel: the living Hieroglyphic of the American character

      The international light that this novel sheds is focused on Isabel Archer who is rescued from the clutches of provincialism by her aunt, who wanted to introduce her to the new world. Mrs. Touchett in a certain sense shows the author’s intention to make her representative. Certain characteristics of Isabel are really noticeable in this context. For example, the innocence which she exhibits and which instigates her to pursue her ‘fate’ despite the warnings. For every goal that is attempted or achieved, James argues, there is a parallel loss in prestige, or pain or patronage. Even with her dynamic energy in order to fully and firmly confront her ‘fate’ Isabel must flout custom, turn a deaf ear to advice, do away with the manners and in the end accept and submit to considerable pain.

      Her imagination, her sense of adventure and her thirst for knowledge are the logical concomitants of her innocence. She has love for freedom and wants to know the possibilities, not so that she may accept but that she might choose. Inherent in all this is the great American assumption that “experience is the best teacher” and that any experience will benefit her, make her more aware, more capable of dealing with “life” than any more Virginal approach. This naked enthusiasm leaves Isabel aware but trapped, concerned but powerless, alive but no longer free.

      James made Isabel realize that the world is not all that bright and simple as a view from Albany would suggest. Isabel comes to grips with the muddy waters and decaying bricks of a more experienced world represented by the ruins of Rome and their timeless teachings. Her relations with Caspar Goodwood, Lord Warburton, and Gilbert Osmond are very important for the study of international contrast. They are representative in their own ways. Isabel’s quest for life is a matter of refining her consciousness through an ordeal. In the end she does discover life in Europe but she discovers it within herself actually, and she discovers it only to make sure that she keeps nothing for herself.

The Calamities Confronting an Emigree

      Nearly all the major characters of the novel are ‘emigree’ Americans. Isabel, Ralph, Daniel Touchett, Gilbert Osmond, Madame Merle, Mrs. Touchett, Henrietta Stackpole—all of them are searching their roots in the European soil. All these characters have their individual ethical and spiritual state. Mr. Touchett, in a comic manner, highlights the problem of cultural assimilation. Gilbert Osmond, Madame Merle and the American trifles in Paris like Mr. and Mrs. Luce have started treading firmly on the European soil. Their approaches to life are closely allied with this problem of spiritual and cultural assimilation. Trivialisation is almost a horrifying prospect for the ‘emigree’ American in Europe. The expatriates in Paris have only mastered the art of social living. To Henrietta, Ralph too is a hanger on but Ralph’s culture is a consmopolitan one. The rootlessness and superficiality of the expatriates in Paris have not struck roots in him. The problems for the expatriates are physical too. Caspar Goodwood complains about the discomforts of traveling in the slow-moving European trains. Henrietta too is not full of praise for the European hotels.

      The Americans, with their Puritanical past have a high moral sense which almost achieves a comic coloring as in the case of Henrietta and Caspar Goodwood who judge Europeans according to their own high standards of morality. In any case it is the ‘complex fate’ of an American to join ‘the broken circuit’ of innocence and experience by undertaking a quest of knowledge in Europe, and to establish his moral vitality in face of ‘a shock of recognition’ that the world is a testing ground for one’s conscience.

Europe : A Complex Life-Symbol

      James was in search of an ideal society, though fate conditioned him to mere spectating because such society neither America nor Europe could provide. Europe stands for a complex life symbol in the novel. Different characters stand on different steps on the ladder of adjustment to life, symbolized by Europe. Thus in a way James treatment of the international theme is a treatment of ‘life’. All the facets of this ‘life’ are revealed to us through different characters. Art, history and the superior graces of life suffer no lack in Europe and the American can simply marvel at them. Yet the danger for Isabel is there—of being ensnared by the surface glitter. An encounter with European ‘experience’ can be almost traumatic for the American ‘innocence’. The American’s quest ends with a certain acceptance, a kind of commitment as well. But unfortunately the experience incapacitates the seeker for further living and one just retreats within oneself. The ‘emigree’ American is often threatened, thus, with a spiritual crippling or maiming in Europe. Isabel, too, from a vibrant, vivacious person becomes a ‘Portrait’, or a ‘museum piece’ to creep through life.

James has Harmonized the Discordant notes

      In this novel James not only gives a wide panorama of divergent national manners and attitudes but a serious and sincere attempt to resolve the conflicts; to move out of the cages provided by each society and its culture to a more spacious, humane and comprehensive world is also there on James’s part. It is not an accident that the period of James’s popularity coincided with the Second World War and the beginning of the United Nations. The desire and love for understanding on the international plane was intensified in those years and an ideal and appealing climate too came into existence.


      Critics have not spared James in their attacks in the sense that he has just shown us the differences within cultures and has not synthesized them. James has shown us the differences, their bright as well as dark side and now, like Isabel we know the possibilities and we can choose and judge. For many readers the appeal of the novel lies in the artistic handling of the international theme.

University Questions

“James was drawn to the international setting by temperament and training as well as by what he judged to be the particular aesthetic requirements of the novel.” Discuss this statement and critically examine the real character of the international situation in The Portrait of a Lady,
“James dramatically and symbolically embodies the American and European values, holding them in poised suspension in our international dialectic that never vulgarly collapses into mere national commitment”. Discuss.
Examine James’s treatment of the problem of the ‘emigree’ American in The Portrait of a Lady,
How does James work on his theme of American—European differences ?
“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.
Write a critical note on James’s handling of the international theme in The Portrait of a Lady.
Attempt an analysis of The Portrait of a Lady in the light of the statement that this novel reveals James’s “profound pondering of the nature of civilized society and of the possibility of imagining a finer civilization than any he knew”.

Previous Post Next Post