Isabel: from Innocence to Experience in The Portrait of a Lady

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      Who doesn’t love the innocence of children ? But, the innocence of young people is termed as mere childishness and the reasons for which that particular person remained innocent are never taken into consideration. Undoubtedly, this is the way of the world and everybody moves along with it. It is because of this that fall from innocence is an important theme in life as well as in literature.

This novel deals with a familiar theme

      The Portrait of a Lady deals with “the birth of a conscience out of a waste of life” according to Tonny Tanner. A typical American is considered to be an innocent whose mind is primitive and metaphysical. James saw Americans largely as innocents confronting the vast civilization of the West. His novel, The Portrait of a Lady also deals with fall from innocence—the most prominent theme dominating the 19th-century American literature.

America is the Eden

      America becomes the Eden in James’s version of the Fall myth. Felix Young says of the society of the Wentworths in The Europeans: “It’s primitive ; it’s patriarchal ; it is the golden age.” The moral innocence of Americans is in full harmony with the idyllic American paradise. These Americans leave America i.e. Eden out of their own free will.

What leads to the fall

      James had suggested that pride and egotism result in man’s decline from the realms of bliss to the road of evil and misery. Now the problem that crops up is—Is Isabel proud and egotistic ? Isabel does have some nerves flooded with pride and egotism in her body. We know that she “had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organization (she couldn’t help knowing her organization was fine), should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse of inspiration gracefully chronic... she spent half her time in thinking of beauty and bravery and magnanimity, she had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, or irresistible action.” Such pride, stemming from a belief in the exploration of unlimited horizons of intellect and emotion can easily become evil. She tells Ralph that she wants to “see” life “better” and that was precisely what stimulated her to come to Europe.! Ralph tells her: “You want to see, but not to feel” (life). This is an extremely telling illustration of pride and egotism based on innocence. She loved life intensely, she wanted to live it intensely and ultimately she had to renounce life. She is the victim of Jamesian irony which seems to hinge on the Biblical idea that “he who loses life, shall find it.” In the end we see her withdrawing from the world, the things she loved, the values she upheld, the realms in which she yearned to explore, to become a portrait to be ‘hung’ in Osmond’s house.

Two kinds of egotism

      According to Leon Edel, there are two kinds of egotism personified by Isabel and Osmond. Isabel “considered”, the author tells us, “that a morality differing from her own must be inferior to it.” In this she is a thoroughgoing American. In her self-absorption, she overlooks the reciprocities of life. Loving her own freedom, she forgets that liberty is often won at the expense of others. Isabel, in her sense of her own absoluteness, nourishes a delusion that one can play god—or goddess—if one has enough wealth and a few generous opportunities. The irony of the tale is that power must seek power, and that the absolutism in the girl is gratified only by a mating with another absolutist. Gilbert Osmond remarks at one moment that it was his unattainable ambition to be the emperor of Russia, or perhaps the Pope. Since he cannot wield world-shaking power he makes himself a petty tyrant. The Portrait balances for us not only questions of freedom and of conscience but is a remarkable study of the kinds of egotism-Isabel’s which is limited and damaging to the self, and Osmond’s which is cruel, and destructive of others. Thus are woven into the novel certain remarkable elements of a national myth: an ideal of freedom and equality hedged with historical blindness and pride ; a self-interest which often takes generous form; a sense of hurt when this generosity is seen as wielding of power. Isabel in her sovereignty begins by recognizing the sovereignty of Osmond. What she does not understand, is that power also consumes power. The young woman who had fled Goodwood because he treated her not as an individual but as an object, yields to a man who reduces her to the level of an objet d'art.

Evil must be faced to understand the innermost foundations of life

      All human beings, all great writers come to terms with the problem of evil in human life. This confrontation equips then with the acceptance of evil to the extent of a vision of transcendence. From the beginning Isabel is conscious of the fact that suffering will play an important role in her life. In rejecting Warburton’s proposal of marriage she thinks : “I can’t escape unhappiness... In marrying you I shall be trying to.” She again and again asks Ralph to show her the ghost. Ralph replies : “I might show it to you, but you’d never see it. The privilege is not given to everyone ; innocent persons like you. You must have suffered first, have suffered greatly, have gained some miserable knowledge. In that way your eyes are opened to it. I saw it long ago.”

      “I told you just now I’m very fond of knowledge,” Isabel answered. “Yes, happy knowledge—of pleasant knowledge but you haven’t suffered, and you’re not made to suffer. I hope you will never see the ghost.”

      All this is said in a lighter vein but it helps us in viewing a shortcoming in Isabel, namely that she wants total knowledge. She is fully conscious of the fact that total knowledge does not exclude the knowledge of evil but what she forgets is the fact that an association with evil will require her to compromise with her enormous goals.

Do we gain anything from the knowledge of evil ?

      Nobody lives for long in the world of ignorance and evil. The knowledge of evil makes a person wiser and enables him to adjust with all the odd and even circumstances. After she falls from innocence Isabel comes to know more about life, about the moral intricacy of the world.

      Now, this leads us to a very critical problem about Isabel’s experience. Has Isabel developed mentally ? As far as this question is concerned, views vary from person to person. Some critics are of the opinion that Isabel, in the end, has climbed fully and properly the ladder of experience and is fully equipped and conversant with every aspect of life. Some others think that this gain of knowledge is inextricably connected with loss of freshness and vivacity in Isabel. There are still others who think that Isabel is as naive and ignorant at the end as she was in the beginning.

Isabel has not gained any experience

      There are critics who are of the opinion that there is no mental or spiritual growth in Isabel. According to them Isabel Archer is incoherent, confused, lacking in self-knowledge, right from the beginning. In the end, she is just the same. It is Henry James himself who tries to impose a sense of her development and growth. The novel is not a tragedy in which Isabel learns something, it is a comic novel, laboring under an imposed sense of tragedy.

      The picture of Isabel that we get in the first few chapters is that of an ‘innocent’ girl standing at threshold and about to enter into 'life’. The reasons that she states for her not accepting Warburton’s proposal are so incoherent that they just seem to add certain glowing touches to the already established picture. She rejects Caspar Goodwood too, and her motivations are not clear again When she decides to marry Osmond, Ralph expostulating against Her choice objects that she “must have changed immensely.” A year ago you valued your liberty beyond everything. You wanted to see life Isabel told him unhesitatingly. “I’ve seen enough of it...One must choose a corner and cultivate that.”. But all this is no more than a disastrous turn of the crew. Isabel does repent for her wrong choice. In the end when Isabel again returns to Osmond, it is confirmed that she has gained no ‘experience’.

      Undoubtedly, those who deny Isabel the cup of ‘experience’ have argued the case very well. But the fact remains that Isabel has gained a lot. There is both mental and spiritual growth. After undergoing all those confrontations, no normal reasonable human being can be said as not to have gained knowledge. The choices once made may not be set aside, one might cling to those very choices but this can hardly be the base for doing away with growth, knowledge and wisdom. Besides this, the novel ends at a crucial moment. A decision taken at such a critical moment may sound, on the surface, as having no solidity of wisdom in it but its implications and after-effects come to the job with the passage of time only. Such is the case with Isabel. If she takes any step after this, or happens to be again on the cross-roads, she will naturally look back to her past life, not to eulogize it, or criticize but to learn something from it.


      We can conclude by saying that this problem of Innocence and Experience is deeply connected with various other aspects of the novel e.g. The Portrait of a Lady as a tragedy, the thematic coherence of The Portrait of a Lady etc., and its study in isolation may cause some inconvenience in understanding it fully.

University Questions

“Fall from innocence is an important aspect of the theme of The Portrait of a Lady”. Do you agree with this view?
Does Isabel’s rejection of Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood and acceptance of Osmond equip her better to face and understand life than she was when she came to Europe ?

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