Realism in the Novel The Portrait of a Lady

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      Henry James made a distinction between what he called ‘realism of method’ and ‘realism of fact’ in the Novel The Portrait of a Lady. An artist, in James’s view, was to give the impression of life, i.e. it was not the business of the artist to give factual realism. He did not consider a novel’s realism to lie in the presentation of the grubby or sordid aspects of life or giving a ‘slice of life’. His conception of a novel involved an idealized picture of life. There is no necessity for documentary reportage.

      James, however, insisted on the evocation of psychological nuances in all the minute details as far as characters were concerned. As far as psychological verisimilitude is concerned, James is a realist. Chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady is a masterpiece in so far as language is used for psychological portrayal. Each and every nuance of thought or image in Isabel’s mind is sought to be captured in appropriately inflected language ; thus when Isabel’s mind is turbulent, the language reflects it, and when she is contemplative, the language is calm. Here we have psychological realism at its best. Henry James is truly said to anticipate the modern psychological novel of Joyce, Proust, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. In the ending of the novel is seen another a aspect of Henry James’s realism. He avoids the conventional happy or sad ending by leaving Isabel where he does James shows himself to be the ‘historian of fine consciences, as Joseph Conrad called him, in ending the novel in the manner an episode in life ends.

      Henry James's realism is also seen in the evocative pictures in his novel The Portrait of a Lady. The concrete evocation of the scene through the scenic or pictorial method gives the novel a sense of ‘felt life’. The rendition of the upper-class English ceremony of taking afternoon tea in the first chapter of the novel is superb for its evocation of realism. The dialogue, conversation settings, all reflect real life. What is noteworthy is that the upper-class society as rendered by James is not stilted. Henry James’s realism is the realism of method. He renders the Essence of life, or the experience of life filtered through the imagination. Hs is a psychological realist and he can evoke in the reader a sense of feeling for the life: represented in the pages of the novel.

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