Moral Concerns of Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady

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      Introduction. As a writer of fiction, though Henry James wanted to entertain and delight his readers, he did not stop there. He wanted something that ennobles them to be imparted to them through his works. He was of the view that Art can fulfill itself only when it is instrumental in broadening and strengthening the moral standard, and the ethical ideas of the readers of the art is in the form of a literary piece. Should the art be music, painting, dance, etc., it should function in such a way as to heighten the feelings of the connoisseurs of that art. James makes a distinction between mere literary craftsmanship and one aided by a passionate urge for moral regeneration.

      Moral sense in the characters. James does not believe in sermonizing. In fact he is dead against a didactic setting in his narratives. But he infuses his major characters with high moral sense. Take for example Isabel in our novel. She has been described as a typical American girl of refinement and innocence. She has certain visionary ideas about human life. She wanted to see life. In her earlier life in the native surroundings of America her knowledge was meagre but her ideals were inflated. She was intellectually superior to many of her friends and playmates. She was morally innocent without any corruptive influences. But she saw life through the medium of literature that she voraciously devoured. This high moral sense prevents her from readily consenting. to live again with Osmond. She would rather suffer pain, than compromise her principles.

      Ralph's humanistic attitude. Ralph was poor in health but this physical ailment does not affect his spirit which was cheerful invariably. If Isabel is the central consciousness in the novel, Ralph is the ‘central intelligence’. His understanding and emotions were mature and truly civilized. He had good intuition, and his readiness to help others is evident throughout the novel of course the author endowed him with noble qualities of the head and heart but at the same time many of his shortcomings have been portrayed. He cultivated a taste for the life of the imagination at the expense of felt reality.

      Moral degeneration occurs for various socioeconomic factors in The Portrait of a Lady. People are compelled to choose between crime and starvation. Economic necessity clouds the moral vision of many. Sometimes Jack of adequate funds for a life of luxury leads many characters to fall into corrupted lives The heroine in our novel is benevolently provided with liberal funds legacy so that her action can proceed unhampered.

      James does not examine the entire society as a whole but of course he minutely examines the ethical consciousness of society which can be considered the mathematical center of the society. He separates the problem of ethical choice from the influence of ethical habits and social pressure.

      Immoral characters. Some characters of Henry James are portrayed as suffering from dissolution of their moral nature and degenerating into conscious scoundrels, as for example Osmond and Madame Merle. Sometimes a character is betrayed by another character who has too little moral sense as for example Isabel by Osmond.

      Influence of morality on sensibility and vice versa. In James’s novels we see that American characteristics are sometimes influenced and modified by European sensibility as in the case of Henrietta Stackpole. Of course concrete terms giving rise to the implications of the relationship of the two traits mentioned above are relatively limited. Osmond is a kind of neurotic, self-centred and unscrupulous character though he has a great deal of aesthetic sense. Although none of his overt actions have been described as having power enough to terrorize Isabel, in effect he betrays Isabel or rather Isabel feels herself betrayed.

      An admixture of moral values and aesthetic sense. Henry James can be justifiably mentioned as a great contributor of the ideas of fusion of moral and aesthetic considerations and values in the realm of literature, especially fiction. There is a sort of dramatic conflict between the levels of moral and aesthetic approaches, the themes of consciousness and conscience. The aesthetic sense comes within the ambit of the conscious and the moral sense within that of conscience. Recognition and solution of moral conflicts is possible when the conscience predominates but the highest affirmation of life, according to James; is possible only by becoming conscious. As consciousness becomes developed into a mature state, though the growth may be gradual, one begins to comprehend the moral intricacy of the world. Isabel wanted to attain a wider and fuller consciousness but since her choice was wrong she had to suffer. Of course the insight she gained enabled her to realize the fructification of consciousness.

      Moral predicaments. Although James was more obsessed with the international theme in his earlier novels he became better equipped and more concerned in depicting the moral. The process of a moral decision is the choice between two distinct lifestyles. One of them may offer adequate opportunities for better fulfillment of the possibilities of the human spirit and the other may lead to frustration ultimately. Henry James never approved of stoicism in life because it does not allow a full play for the free use of human capacities. Pleasure is not intrinsically an evil as in the opinion of the Puritans. But James considers pleasure as the reward for the satisfactory accomplishment of the adventure of life.

      Conclusion. According to James, sensitive souls always suffer though they may stoically brave those sufferings, while the case and materialistic ones attain success in life. This does not mean that he approves of it. His major characters have high moral responsibility and do have the courage to accept the consequences if they are due to their own mistakes as in the case of Isabel. Perhaps, James subscribes to the opinion of the German Goethe that men of adventurous temperament and quick action must of need be corrupt, whereas men of contemplative nature (like Ralph Touchett) should necessarily be noble. Isabel ultimately withdraws from action to a life of passivity and returns to Rome. If a life is wasted, as a compensation, we find that there is the ultimate growth of a conscience. Life is painful and hence acceptance of misery with courage can be approved of if it makes the character rise to a higher level in his moral stature. Pain and suffering must be sublimated so the level of better self-knowledge, Thus we can conclude by saying the James’s interest in the revelation of moral values in life gives his novels a wider reader appeal.

University Questions

Discuss The Portrait of a Lady if as a depiction of the uncertainties and complexities of the moral life.
Write on the moral concerns of Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady.

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