Psychic Realisation in the Novel The Portrait of a Lady

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      The psychological aspect of man’s mental make-up has touched unpredicted heights in modern age. It is evident in every branch of life - literature, science, politics, love, marriage, society, family etc. It has given a new meaning and innumerable new dimensions to the study of literature.

James’s Preference

      Henry James, who had been criticized for crossing his moorings has, on the other hand explored new depths of human mind and heart. In such an exploration a step beyond the physicalities (the boundaries of a country in particulars) is not only recommendation but an absolutely necessary one. In the Preface to The Portrait of a Lady James had clearly referred to his preference: “A psychological reason is, to my imagination an object adorably pictorial, to catch the hint of the complexion—I feel as if that idea might inspire one to Titanesque efforts. There are few things more exciting to me in short than a psychological reason”. We know that The Portrait of a Lady is a study of Isabel; it does not narrate the events but it records Isabel’s relation to those events and approach and attitude to the shocks and surprises of experiences. William James too had made a beautiful comment on James’s intention. In his opinion, James was striving “to give an impression like that we often get of people in life : their orbits come out of space and lay themselves from a short time along of ours, and then they off and whirl again into the unknown, leaving us with little more than an impression of their reality and of a feeling of baffled curiosity as to the mystery of the beginning and the end of their being”.

Departure from the Traditional Novel

      This interest in psychology gave a new form and direction to novel-writing too. This resulted in departure from the traditional novel in two ways. Firstly, the microcosmic view instead of the macrocosmic, started gaining an upper hand and secondly, the plot moved away from its convention of a beginning, middle, and end. It does not, however, mean that there were no intensely, emotional and moral experiences in the traditional novel. But it simply means that these experiences were of an altogether different quality and their presentation too differed. In traditional novel it was presented as a closed experience and the ending always checked the experience. But in modern novel experience does not end with the ending. There is always a new beginning at the end.

      James was interested in the international theme because he was in search of a new civilization. This, however, was not the only reason. As an artist he loved to explore and dramatize the psychological and cultural complexities that grew out of international confrontations. He tells us in the preface that he started the novel with the conception of a ‘certain young woman affronting her destiny’. In the novel he has projected the whole thing from the psychological point of view and thus different levels of complexity demand our attention.

      James never drew a line or demarcation between art and life. For him art too was a life, it was an effort to live as intensely as possible by realizing one’s impressions through expressing them in the form of art. He thought life to be chaotic, and art to be selective since art gives meaning to life. James himself wrote at the close of his life: “It is art that makes life, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process”.

Isabel’s Psychic Realization

      There are many universal human experiences which we meet on the road of life. One such experience is movement from a world of illusion to a world of reality. Artists view it according to their own sensibility which depends on the quality and quantity of their experiences. Such a movement, such a realization results from the pressure of events, the character gradually move from relative innocence to relative experience we can give different names to it, such as a movement, a progress, a structural flow, the stream of conscience, a creative process etc., but the flux of experience is the underlying structure of the novel also its underlying ethical form.

      James was also interested in the exploration of the relation between the formal organization of experience in fiction and the ethical assumptions that guide the form. One new and important aspect of the new novel was a departure from the old assumptions about the nature and end of the experience. In the traditional novel, the end of experience had a finality about it, in a way it was closed experience. But in Janies it is not so, the flux of experience is never blocked. Since ‘the whole of anything is never told’, there may be new openings; new beginning at the end.

      In The Portrait of a Lady too, we have a movement from illusion to reality of Psychic Realisation. This takes place in chapter forty-two when Isabel sits throughout the night in a room with the dying embeds fleckering away. She is haunted by the vision of Madame Merle and Osmond talking in a way that suggested a step beyond formality, a new intimacy. We can even view the whole story from this point of view, since Isabel’s realization has both prospective and retrospective effects.

      One day Isabel and Pansy came back from a walk. Pansy went straight to her room, and Isabel passed into the drawing room. Just beyond the threshold of the drawing-room she stopped short at a scene—Gilbert Osmond sitting while Madame Merle stood—Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware that Isabel had come in. But soon Madame Merle saw her and welcomed her. Osmond instantly jumped up, and left the room without a word. On that very evening, Osmond talked to Isabel about Pansy’s marriage. He wanted Isabel to take undue advantage of her influence on Lord Warburton and thus made him marry Pansy. Isabel did not say anything and after Osmond had stepped out, she leaned back in her chair and was lost in thoughts for a long time. She was troubled by Osmond’s intimation that her friendship with Warburton could help him to secure Pansy: “Was she to cultivate the advantage she possessed in order to make him commit himself to Pansy, knowing that he would do so for her sake, and not for the young girl’s—was this the service her husband had asked of her?” She had hoped Osmond as Providence and now she could conclude that it was really herself that he hated. Her only fault was that she had a mind of her own and in order to be tolerated at all it was necessary for her to get rid of all her ideas : “Her character, the way she felt, the way she judged”. In other words, she herself had to help Osmond in the process of non-entity which he had started for her. Most disturbing to Isabel was the corruption of the formal society of which she was a part. She was kept as a piece of property in a decadent garden where she was really despised. At that time she realized that Ralph too was intelligent and perhaps more intelligent than Osmond since he had correctly perceived the real relation which existed between Isabel and Osmond.

      She lingered on her chair till four. Then she got up but was still troubled about the calculated despatch of Pansy and always before she was the image of Osmond talking to Madame Merle.

      James himself considered this chapter as the best one in the novel and “a supreme example of the general plan.” In this chapter, we have only one character and so, naturally enough, there is no conversation but only a peep into all the levels of Isabel’s mind. In this interior monologue we find the language carefully delineating different shades of meaning, and the real meaning lies in the shadings and refinements of thought as revealed by the tensions of the language.


      We know that the experience does not end with the last words of the chapter but articulates unspoken volumes of what could have been and what will be. It is for this reason that it becomes a psychic realization encircling Isabel's past, present and future.

University Questions

1. What do you think of the psychic realization in The Portrait of a Lady? Answer with illustrations.

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