The Portrait of a Lady ‘Supreme Illustration’ in Chapter 42

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      Henry James considered Chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady to be the ‘best thing in the book, but it is a supreme illustration of the general plan’. His own commentary on the chapter is : ‘She (Isabel) sits up, by the dying fire, far into the night, under the spell of recognitions on which she finds the last sharpness suddenly wait. It is a representation simply of her motionlessly seeing and an attempt withal to make the more still lucidity of her act as ‘interesting’ as the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate. It represents, for that matter, one of dying identifications dear to the novelist, and even indispensable to him ; but it all goes on without her being approached by another person and without her leaving her chair’.

      Focal point. In this chapter, we find Isabel pondering over ‘her past and agonizing over her present and fearing the future. The chapter emerges as a focal point.’ The chapter is another internal monologue in which one has sense of Isabel opening her mind to the reader, revealing her a most intimate thoughts. Isabel takes stock of her actions, and in this chapter she spares neither herself nor Osmond in the disappointment she feels over her marriage. The ‘familiar association’ of Osmond and Madame Merle makes Isabel think actively about her mistake. Osmond is associated with the serpent—an open identification with Satan. The imagery and the words used in this chapter contribute to the sense of deception and being trapped. Isabel’s consciousness struggles into an awakening to its real situation. But honesty compels her to admit that if she had been ‘duped’ by Osmond, maybe he, too, has been ‘duped’ by her.

      Isabel’s attitude towards Ralph also changes. She hides her sorrow from him, not because she hates him as he thinks, but because she does not want to give him pain in his illness. Osmond’s malice and deadening power is brought out clearly. Clearly this chapter is the climax in Isabel’s quest for truth and knowledge. It epitomizes her ultimate continuation with herself. Her own error of judgment rises in the form ‘haunting shadows’, the ironical take off on the ‘ghosts’ that she wanted to see at Gardencourt. All her freedom, save her creative suffering and her ability at least to assess the nature of her situation, has been taken by the serpentine Osmond

      The significance of this chapter lies not so much in the events or the topic discussed but in the shadings and refinements of thought as revealed by the tensions of language. We cannot help noticing how light is associated with Isabel and darkness with Osmond. Isabel is associated with the innocent dove as opposed to the ‘serpent in the grass’ that Osmond is. Thus the theme of innocence and experience is also expounded in this chapter The really interesting question in the novel is, what will Isabel do with herself rather than what will happen to her. It is here that Chapter 42 is the ‘best thing’ in the novel and indicative of the ‘general plan’, for it is the occasion for the heroine of the novel to come to terms with herself. She comes to realize that she herself is as much responsible for her fate as her circumstances. She is not a passive sufferer; to some extent, she is the progenitor of her own suffering because of her ‘factitious’ theories of life.

University Questions

Give a critical analysis of Chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady—the chapter that James considered as ‘obviously the best thing in the book’.
Do you consider Chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady to be ‘a supreme illustration of the general plan’ ?

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