James Two Method of Presentation in The Portrait of a Lady

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      Henry James occupies a pivotal position in the development of the 20th century novel as far as technique is concerned. He himself has written about the two methods of presentation—the pictorial and the dramatic. There is no doubt about the fact that in The Portrait of a Lady the two methods have been adopted by him with a remarkable success. The ‘pictorial’ method used by Henry James is the painter’s technique of careful filling in details. It is this which sprinkles a ‘solidity’ on the language which James uses just as an artist uses paints. Richard Poirer, a critic, has shown us how the tea-taking episode in chapter one of the novel gives us a careful and precise rendering of an afternoon tea-taking ritual in an English country house.

      The first half of The Portrait of a Lady is narrative and diffuse whereas the second half is dramatic and psychological. It is in the first part that we get descriptions not only of places but of people too. Different characters appear in the scene and James lavishes great attention on their appearance. In the first six chapters, we come to know all about Isabel and is it not dramatized but narrated. Then we have descriptions of the houses at Gardencourt, Albany, Florence and Rome. These descriptions are paintings in words. The metaphors and symbols which James uses, add a graphic beauty and vividness to the descriptions. In the descriptions, we see Henry James as a painter setting background for the tragedy of Isabel Archer ‘whose portrait’ he paints in the novel. Here we are also reminded of Hawthorne’s pictorial quality.

      In this connection, we see that the title, too, is significant since it reveals James’s interest in the art of painting. According to Gallaway, the novel as a painting or as a portrait is constructed on the basis of a central consciousness and the resultant inner soliloquy; the latter comprised for James, the most successful party of The Portrait—Isabel’s lovely, meditative vigil in chapter forty-two. The novel also employs something of painterly technique. We first see Isabel framed by the ‘ample doorway’ of Gardencourt, but are given here only a light, sketchy outline ; throughout the novel James is filling in the sketch, adding shadow nuances. Three years later after her marriage to Osmond she is seen, ‘framed in the gilded doorway’ of her drawing room at the Palazzo Roccanero, as ‘the picture of a gracious lady’, but it is only in the final chapter, when we learn that she has returned to Rome, that the portrait is complete. James frequently thought of himself as a painter in words, painting figures as characters in his fiction, and he was himself a critic of the fine arts.

      On the other hand, James also made ample use of the dramatic method. In dramatic method, dialogue is very significant and useful. In the pictorial method, details have the lion’s share but dramatic method relies on dialogue which is highly selective and economical. The emphasis, too, shifts to the relationship and clashes between characters and the resultant tension. The chapter forty-two, in which Isabel takes stock of her situation is a dramatic presentation of the whole situation. There is no physical action and this absence of physical action is compensated by the turmoil in Isabel’s mind which is seen through James’s language, a language which has grasped the exact emotion of Isabel Archer. We also have a dramatic presentation of Madame Merle’s tragedy. It is summed up in that moment when she looks at the chip in a cup. The author does not tell us anything but the situation powerfully speaks for itself. The chapter thirty-one and chapter thirty-two build up a fine contrast since chapter thirty-one is purely descriptive and is followed by a chapter which is fully dramatic. Thus we can say that pictorial representation and dramatic portrayal can not be separated since these two methods do, in fact, interpenetrate.

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