Moral Aesthetic Values of The Portrait of a Lady

Also Read

      Henry James remarked on the subject of marriage : “I believe almost as much in matrimony for most other people as I believe in it little for myself,” and that one’s attitude towards marriage is that most characteristic part doubtless of one's general attitude towards life” James was right. After reading The Portrait of a Lady it can be said that one’s attitude towards objects of art is also a characteristic part of one’s general attitude towards life.”

Morality and Art

      James was never in favor of art for art’s sake. He said that a strong moral vision should always undergird a work of art. It is the presence of a moral vision that establishes the greatness of Tolstoy over Flaubert. Edith Warton has remarked in this connection, “but Henry James had been an eye for the plastic value of ‘subjects’ as for their moral importance. In this connection, I remember once getting an enlightened glimpse of his ideas. We were discussing Flaubert, for whom his early admiration had called and for whose inner resonance I accused him of having lost his ear. James objected that Falubert’s subjects were not worth the labor spent on them; to which I returned: ‘But why is not Madame Bovary as good a subject as Anna Karenina ? Both novels turn upon a woman’s love affairs, : ‘Ah’ he said but one paints the fierce passion of a luxurious aristocracy the other ideas with the petty miseries of little bourgeois’s in a provincial town. Here James had made a distinction between craftsmanship and art—Flaubert is a great craftsman with a small subject whereas Tolstoy is a great craftsman with a great (i.e. morally important) problem.

Intermingling of Moral and Aesthetic values

      The fusion of moral and aesthetic values is one of Henry James’s chief contributions to fiction. The form of novel operates on two levels, moral and aesthetic; and it is the dual nature of form that provides the best example of the dramatic conflict between the two levels.

      In The Portrait of a Lady we get a beautiful illumination of the Moral Aesthetic theme of consciousness and conscience. By the terms “conscience” is to be understood that region of the mind, that area of our habitual mental activity, which is reserved for the recognition and solution of moral conflicts. The highest affirmation of life in James is to become conscious. It is in the gradual growth and widening of this consciousness that one comprehends the moral intricacy of the world, the knowledge of evil, but consciousness always transcends the knowledge which is its content. Isabel in her search for a wider and fuller consciousness chooses wrongly and the insight which she gains through suffering also provides an access to live, to the fructification of consciousness.

      In the early novels James was concerned with the international contrast but in the middle of 1880’s, James came to be more and more concerned with the theme of the moral predicament. Whenever the question of a moral decision comes up, we know that it is not just an ethical choice between right and wrong. It is in a deeper and a wider sense a choice between two ways of life, one offering some opportunity for a greater fulfillment of the possibilities of the human spirit and the other offering eventual frustration. In James’s novels, we find that, one of the important events determining the plot is the moral choice made by a character. Zola and Dreiser, the naturalists, are at the opposite pole from James who is essentially humanistic. Zola and Dreiser thought biological and social forces to be more binding and thus denied freedom of choice; for James morality was a complex thing and not a simple motivating force which refrained an individual from doing deliberate ill. Stoicism ruled out all the possibilities of free use of one’s human capacities and thus James never approved of it. James was also against that type of Puritanism which defined pleasure as evil because for him life was an adventure in the moral realm. Aesthetic or moral experience is enticed only when it is felt.

      The moral question that is raised by every character is a question of the ‘amount of felt life’ that each is able to experience. The moral question is not free from vision, feeling and composition and thus is an aesthetic one as well. Thus moral and aesthetic senses effortlessly melt into each other. In a work of art we have new reflections both on beauty as well on truth and thus it is the quantum and quality of a writer’s experience which determines the moral quality of that work.

Moral-Aesthetic Relationship is very Complex

      Moral-aesthetic relationship is not a simple one. On the other hand, it is the complexity of this relationship which accounts for much of the interest of the novel. Essentially, James is invoking the aesthetic argument that the knowledge and acceptance of morality is synonymous with the knowledge’s acceptance of art. The reader of a Jamesian novel starts understanding this relationship once he gets involved in the technique of the novel. Undoubtedly awareness dawns upon the reader with the character but this process of coming to terms with the expanding consciousness is a complex process because James delights in the metaphorical elaborations and embellishments of a situation.

How do the characters Articulate their Moral Values ?

      In this novel James has used objects of art in a symbolic way. Different characters through their attitude to these objects express their moral values. Gilbert Osmond is a collector of medallions crucifixes, tapestries, Correggio's etc. It may seem at first that Osmond has a real aesthetic sense but as we turn over the pages of the novel we start realizing that he is no more than a “sterile dilettante”. Not an aesthetic but a utilitarian interest has made him collect these objects of art. As he uses objects of art so he uses human beings. He tells Isabel that life is a work of art. He has reduced Pansy to an object Which can merely echo him. She instead of going against the wishes of his father thinks it her sacred duty to do what he desires. The morality of the aesthetic life of Gilbert Osmond results in the death of spirit and stasis of action. Isabel’s sojourn in Osmond’s villa is nothing more than Osmoad’s attempt to turn her into a ‘Portrait’ to add a new decorative touch to his villa. Madame Merle who dazzles Isabel is a woman of great accomplishments whom Isabel loves to emulate. She is well versed in fine arts like painting, music and embroidery. Besides this she has also mastered the art of keeping up appearances, the art of social conversation etc. But she uses her cultivated aestheticism for utilitarian ends. She herself says: “I don’t pretend to know what people are meant for...I only know what I can do with them.” “Osmond uses Isabel ‘as handled ivory to the palm’ so she too uses people as means to her ends. We get a new insight into Madame Merle’s character when we read her views on how one expresses one’s self. She tells Isabel:

      “When you’ve lived as long as I, you’ll see that even human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell, I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There is no such thing as an isolated man or woman, we are each of us made up of a cluster of appurtenances. What do you call one’s self ? Where does it begin ? Where does it end ? It overflows into everything that belongs to us—and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the dresses I choose to wear. I have a great respect for things : One’s self—for other people—is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s clothes, the books one reads, the company one keeps—these things are all expressive”.

      Now we understand how skillfully she keeps up appearances and thus easily uses her cultivated aestheticism for utility purpose.

      Osmond and Madame Merle have seemingly good manners, good tastes but they also have wretched morals. Both are theoretical and superficial. In the end we discover that Osmond who seemed, at first sight, a protagonist of art is a hallow being in both the moral and aesthetic spheres. His aesthetic sensibility is passive and narcissistic and has a lurking evil in it. Isabel is at once enchanted and then ensnared by Osmond’s appearance. She discovers, along with the reader, that he is nothing more than a ‘sterile dilettante’. It corresponds with James’s discovery that ‘art for art’s sake has no meaning and is injurious to life itself—life, the very substance of art.

      Ralph too is interested in arts but does not give it the worship which Osmond does. He knows the distinction between art and nature. When he conducts Isabel through the art gallery at Gardencourt he thought that Isabel was better looking at than most works of art. He plans to make Isabel rich so that she can fulfill the requirements of her imagination. Though he unconsciously becomes with his father the beneficent author of her eternal woe, his plan is no doubt creative. His love for Isabel emerges as a love of life itself. This humanistic attitude crystallizes his moral values. The idea of his regular occupation is to sit at the base of a statue of the dancing nymph, even, when he is dying he likes to sit at the feet of the dancing mouse and play while others dance. He is the artist who plays with Isabel’s imagination but his music unluckily does not produce the sweet melodies. His aesthetic morality is both human and inclusive. He is the one whose eye pierces beyond Osmond’s ‘appearances’. He says : “He (Osmond) always had an eye to effect and his effects were deeply cultivated. They were produced by no vulgar means, but the motive was as vulgar as the art was great”.

      Isabel wants to see life. Ralph objects to it because she wants to see life but not feel it. And she sees without judging. When she comes to Gardencourt and is introduced to Lord Warburton, she exclaims, in accordance with hep habit of viewing life through the medium of literature, “it’s just like a novel”. Her response to art is immediate and tinged with emotions. It is this which makes her marry Gilbert Osmond, who appears to her a devotee of arts. Isabel who could be Columbia and Diana at Gardencourt, merely echoes Osmond at Osmond Villa. Osmond wants that Isabel should assist him in his plan to marry Pansy to Lord Warburton. When she learns Pansy’s love for Edward Rosier and wants Pansy to do what her father desires, she finds herself insincere. As her steps move deeper into the dark house of her marriage, she intends to hide her suffering by putting on an artful mask. James himself says: “It seemed to her an act of devotion to conceal it elaborately, in their talk she was perpetually hanging out curtains and arranging screens.” She is like Osmond and Madame Merle, in danger of succumbing to a sterile aestheticism by substituting appearances for reality, not so much because of a blind worship of appearances, conventions and forms as a certain fear of reality itself. When she begins to understand the implications of the ‘form’ she herself adopts the gestures and mannerisms of an actress. She finds it her duty to play the part of a good wife. But she is to learn that feeling and experience cannot be separated. Her moral and aesthetic senses are discordant. There is a sort of tension between will and necessity, between the reality of relationships with others, and the emotional needs. Her moral aesthetic sensibility is integrated when she realizes that merely art is not enough and that morality is equally important. This knowledge seems to be gradually entering her mind when we see her absorbing strengthening reminders and consoling clues from the marred but spending debris of human habitations of past. Suffering is a supreme discipline—it is the price one pays for being able to feel and thus Isabel has triumphed over the fate which awaits such characters as Gilbert Osmond, Mrs. Touchett, and the Countess Gemini. Isabel gains, through suffering, maturity of experience and knowledge which is no less than an enlightenment. The ghost that she wanted to see on arriving in England is seen by her in Osmond’s Italian Villa symbolically called the dark rock. This does not harden her but makes her more human. She understands universal sympathy and tolerance—the cardinal virtues in Jamesian universe.


      James’s prized characters are those who had this moral aesthetic consciousness, with a spiritual grace. Their conscience is “a form of sensibility, a style of life, a state of mind...their possession of moral sense is for them even a kind of fatality, it is also a kind of chivalry”. Human desire to know and the inability to do that frustrate it, is the staple yarn of James’s novels from The Portrait of a Lady through The Wings of Dove to The Ambassadors.

      James’s interest in the moral predicament provides thematic unity between the first and the second groups of his novels The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Ths Princess Casamassima (1886), The Tragic Muse (1890), and The Spoils of Pony ton (1947).

University Questions

Express in your own words the relationship of moral - aesthetic values in The Portrait of a Lady.

Previous Post Next Post