Is ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ a Tragedy?

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      ‘Pessimism’ and ‘optimism’ are an innate pan of human nature. These two approaches to life in general owe a lot to human experience. This human experience also includes study of literature. In this way literature helps in exploiting one’s potential and the latent sensibilities. Even in our day-to-day life we are inclined to term the incidents broadly as comic or tragic. Thus, the problem considering and deciding a particular work of art as to be a tragedy or a comedy does not seem to drop all of a sudden from the blue.

The Question is not Simple

      It is difficult to answer the question of this novel being a tragedy or not in a categorical manner. This is so because in the novel we find a strange admixture of the elements of tragedy and comedy. These elements move hand-in-hand throughout the novel.

The words ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Comedy’ are not exclusive

      Henry James never defined the words ‘comedy’ and ‘tragedy’, though he used them quite frequently. There is no doubt that his use of the words is broadly inclusive. In a letter to Howells, in which he promised to make The Europeans “a very joyous little romance”, an opportunity came up when he could hint at the contrast between tragedy and comedy. He wrote to Howells: “I quite understand that as an editor you should go in for ‘cheerful ending’, but I am sorry that as a private reader you are not struck with the inevitability of the American denouncement”. After this clue to at least one meaning which tragedy holds for him, he confesses his own predilection toward tragedy and then his response to comedy. “I don’t think that tragedies have the presumption against them as much as you appear to; I suspect it is the tragedies in the life that arrest my attention more than the other things and say more to my imagination; but on the other hand, if I fix my eyes on a sunspot I think I am able to see the prismatic colors in it”.

What type of Tragedy is this ?

      The evaluation of The Portrait of a Lady as a tragic novel or as a tragedy gives rise to many questions. The first question is if it is a tragedy, then, what type of tragedy is it ? As far as the types of tragedy are concerned, different types are there, though an attempt to make hard and fast rules is doomed to failure. There is Aristoteleari tragedy, Romantic tragedy, Shakespearean tragedy, Christian tragedy, Hardyesque tragedy etc. The ingredients of these tragedies seem to melt into each other with effortless ease at times. If we want to discuss The Portrait of a Lady as an Aristotelean tragedy then, we have to emphasize the elements of plot and character. If we intend to accept The Portrait of a Lady as a Romantic tragedy we have to devote a special attention to the elements of sentiment and character.

      The very phrase classical tragedy brings to the mind Oedipus Rex. Obviously, Oedipus Rex and Aristotle’s Poetics can never be separated and the debate on how far a telling illustration helps to elucidate a theory will never come to an end. Spending much time on this controversy would lead to us to nothing. An Aristotelean tragedy has a ‘hero’ who has an important flaw in his character. Such a tragedy is supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end. The action begins with the ‘hero’ committing a grand mistake because of ‘the flaw’, then we have the climax and in the end there is denoument with the hero gaining wisdom and overcoming all the temptations. As far as the question of hero’s death in the end is concerned we can take a more liberal view in accordance with our times. There may be ‘spiritual’, ‘mental’ or ‘emotional’ death if not ‘physical’.

      Isabel with all her good qualities has pride born out of those very qualities. If we slightly turn the telescope, her best qualities look her limitations. Her too theoratic approach to life, her habit of viewing life through the medium of literature, her intense passion of confrontation, her boldness which verges on insolence etc., are a kind of encrustations which she has created for herself. We also come to know that Isabel has rejected Caspar Goodwood and then we see her rejecting Lord Warburton. The middle of the novel starts with Isabel inheriting a large fortune. The climax comes with Isabel’s decision to marry Osmond. After her marriage, begins the realization of the mistake she committed in marrying the “sterile dilettante”. In the last two chapters, we see her overcoming all the temptations and clinging to the choice she made. When she returns to Rome, we see her as Oedipus who accepts the fate. Tragic irony which pervades the novel also reminds us of Oedipus Rex and King Lear. There are moments when Isabel can escape into trivialities but she rejects all such openings like a true tragic hero. According to the critic Tonny Tanner, her “fear” is also a part of her tragic makeup. Time and again she is afraid of different things but in the end she is afraid of herself. She is afraid of her nature which will always make wrong choices. Her personal tragedy has an element of Aristotlean tragedy.

As a Romantic Tragedy

      In a Romantic tragedy there is an idealization of the hero—he is much different from ordinary people pessimism of the hero on account of his living in an “inferior” and extremely ‘‘materialistic” world, ending in which the hero loses the world and becomes a martyr. These elements too seem to be incorporated in this novel. In the end there is a suggestion that Isabel has become a victim of a crash and brazen world which could never appreciate her high values. Arnold Kettle in his essay on The Portrait of a Lady feels that Isabel is glorified in the end to the extent of becoming a great martyr. It is this glory which makes for Isabel's moral triumph in the end. An element of fantasy and death-wish too is there in Isabel’s return to Rome.

      As far as this type of tragedy is concerned, all may seem alright—but her martyrdom is imposed. She has lost something but all this is a common and ordinary affair.

As a Christian Tragedy

      This type of tragedy has religious—specifically connected with Christianity-overtones. The symbolism and imagery of the novel does have a religious tinge. In a Christian tragedy, the hero dies for the redemption of others. Isabel does die a ‘symbolic’ death in the end but there is no redemption, no regeneration— not even a remote possibility of it. Thus, we should not consider this tragedy as a Christian one.

      There are critics who have discussed The Portrait of a Lady as a comedy. Now, we will try and put forward their viewpoints.

The Tragic and the Comic visions were never separated

      Dr. Kaul has described The Portrait of a Lady as a comic novel laboring under an imposed sense of tragedy. According to him, the tragic and the comic vision existed simultaneously in James’s thought. The comic structure of the novel is borrowed from George Eliot or Jane Austen. On the other hand, James’s literary ancestry goes back to Hawthorne and that dark aspect of the Puritan imagination of which Hawthorne himself was a severely critical and, in literary terms, consistent and light successfully legatee.

The Comic theme is there right from the beginning

      The opening pages of The Portrait of a Lady are reminiscent of the opening pages of Jane Austen’s any novel. The heroine, very much like the heroines of Jane Austen has a romantic and theoretical approach to life and world in general. She is glimpsed to us through Mrs. Touchett. “Isabel seated alone with a book trudging over the sandy plains of a history of German thought”. The comic theme of abstraction, introduced so unobtrusively is emphasized throughout the novel. We find her always making wrong choices, pretending that she has developed a lot of which there is not even a remote possibility and in the end she accepts all that the future has restored for her because there was no other way out for this self-contred, incoherent and confused girl.

      One may, grant that structure of the novel verges on comedy but its complexity, its psychological and emotional intricacy, its remarkable use of symbolism and imagery saves it from being labeled as a comedy.

It is both a Comedy as well as a Tragedy

      After examining the viewpoints regarding The Portrait of a Lady as a comedy and as a tragedy, strictly confined within the limitations of these two forms, we find that the answer is still unsatisfactory. The most feasible and comprehensive view is one of taking The Portrait of a Lady as having both tragic and comic elements. The fact that both strands of comic and tragic vision were there inextricably in James’s vision and the early part of the novel emphasizes the comic theme has already been discussed. Now we see that there is no break in the continuity of tragic and comic elements in the novel.

Tragedy and Comedy never part company

      Tragedy and comedy are intimately connected in the novel. Leyburn has quoted a significant passage from the novel to show that tragedy and comedy never bid a goodbye to each other in the novel. Comedy and tragedy are inseparably connected in the passage where James directly addresses the reader: “Smile not, however, I venture to repeat at this simple young woman from Albany who debated whether she should accept an English peer before he had offered himself and who was disposed to believe that on the whole she could do better. She was a person of great good faith and if there was a great deal of folly in her wisdom those who judge her severely may have the satisfaction of finding that, later, she became consistently wise only at the cost of an amount of folly which will constitute almost a direct appeal to charity.”

      There is no abrupt leap from comedy to tragedy in the novel which may make it liable to be divided in comic and tragic parts. The flicker of tragedy keeps hovering over the earlier comic part. All the three proposal scenes have lurking tragic possibilities. “The increasing momentum of tragic implication in the comedy of the three proposal scenes is representative of the way James uses comedy throughout the first half of the novel to build up a pressure of apprehension for Isabel which makes her suffering, when it finally begins, seem all the more overpowering. When Isabel reappears after her marriage, she has already learned much of the wisdom which James has promised that she will discover through her folly; she is no longer treated comically, though she can be the instrument of ‘bitter comedy.’

The ending is not imposed

      The end of the novel is not a departure from the line of tragic and comic admixture. Isabel flees away from the prospects that Goodwood can picture and return back to Osmond to suffer “emotional cannibalism”. Since we find the comic and tragic elements always together the novel gets a more convincing and life-like touch.

The Tragic Waste

      There is a terrible tragic waste in the novel at the end. Isabel’s life has become hollow to the extent of just retaining the name of life. Isabel’s hopes and love of fruitful and abundant living are absolutely blighted in the end. In the last chapters we start getting the impression that Isabel has lost her freshness, vitality and charm. This is the incalculable price she must pay for the consciousness of the moral intricacy of the world.

      One may try one’s level best to pin down The Portrait of a Lady as a comedy but the last six chapters which create a remarkable impression of tragic waste, frustration, and loss will always check such pinning down.


      The psychological complexity of the novel saves it from being termed as just the comedy or the tragedy. This novel marks the culmination of the first period of James’s mature development and shows him in excellent command of his artistic powers. This intermingling of comic and tragic elements continues to the end in James’s works.

University Questions

1. “The Portrait of a Lady presents a strange admixture of the elements of tragedy and comedy.” Discuss this stater ment.
2. Is it true to say that The Portrait of a Lady is a tragic novel?

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