The Structure of the Novel The Portrait of a Lady

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      The ruins of life and art sometimes provide the necessary material for the new edifices. How good and well-proportioned is the new edifice, the credit goes to the creator. Henry James was a great innovator in the architectural quality of fiction. James refashioned and remolded the loose and rambling novel form of the Victorians. He endowed it with a new and interesting complexity of literary art. He considered structure to be the spine of the novel and called it architectural competence.

Henry James Lavished a great care on the Structure

      The aesthetic ordering and the structure of a novel were of great importance to James. Subsequently enough, he lavished great care on it. One of his aims in writing The Portrait of a Lady was that of structure and his judgment as to how far he has succeeded is unequivocal. The Portrait of a Lady first appeared in 1881 and ever since critics have shown special concern and consideration for the structure of this novel.

What James himself said

      On the element of structure in the novel, The Portrait of a Lady James made two important pronouncements in the Preface to the “New York Edition”: “The point is, however, that this single small cornerstone, the conception of a certain young woman affronfing her destiny, had begun with being all my outfit for the large building of The Portrait of a Lady. It came to be a square and spacious house—or has at least seemed so, to me, in this going over it again: but such as it is, it had to be put up around my young woman while she stood there in perfect isolation.”

      Again he speaks of “creating on such a plot of ground the neat and careful and proportioned pile of bricks that arches over it and that was to form, constructionally, a literary monument. Such is the aspect that today, The Portrait has for me: a structure reared with an ‘architectural’ competence, as Turgenieff would have said, that makes it, to the author’s own sense, the most proportioned of his productions after The Ambassadors—which was to follow so many years later and which has, no doubt, a superior roundness.”

      Those who can respond to the structural beauty of a novel must agree with James. James’s painstaking technique has been compared by critics like R.W. Stallman and James himself to that of an architect who carefully, inch by inch, fills in the details which are finally to be the building. James used the metaphor of a house or a great building to comment on the structural aspect of The Portrait of a Lady. To him Isabel’s coming face to face with her destiny was the ‘corner-stone’ of the novel, the result was a ‘square and spacious house.” It is Isabel’s life and actions which are the main concern of the book and each minor or major event has its own significance—a new brick to the construction.

      “On one thing”, James declared, he “was determined; that, though (he) should clearly pile brick upon brick for the creation of an interest, (he) would leave no pretext for saying that anything is out of line, scale or perspective. (He) would build large—in fine embossed vaults and painted arches, as who should say, and yet never let it appear that the chequered pavement, the ground under the reader’s feet, fails to stretch at every point to the base of the walls.”

Structurally the novel falls into Three Parts

      Keeping in mind James’s remarks, we can now analyze the structure of The Portrait of a Lady. It is helpful, at the outset to know what are the elements of the structure of a novel. According, to Philip Stevick, the structure of a novel lies “in constructing actions with beginning, middle and end, with the materials of novels, deployed in such a way as to give the image of coherence continuity and wholeness, and with certain tensions and anticipations regarding the central characters carried through the entire length of the work, to be resolved only at its end.”

      Structurally, the novel, The Portrait of a Lady falls into three almost equal parts like three acts of a play, followed by an epilogue. The first part of the novel constitutes the first nineteen chapters. In this part we have the elaborate exposition and the first development of the plot, Isabel coming into contact with European people and European surroundings, Isabel and Lord Warburton’s affair heading for the climactic scenes: Lord Warburton’s proposal, Isabel’s rejection of him, and the death of Daniel Touchett. The second part constitutes the next sixteen chapters (Chapters XX—XXXV). In this we see the complications arising out of Isabel’s inheritance of the machinations of Madame Marie who starts casting her snares from the very beginning. This section reaches its climax when Osmond blurts out his love and then we see Isabel defending and upholding her choice in the face of the rejected Caspar Goodwood’s protests. The third part occupies seventeen chapters (Chapters XXXVI—L11). Here we fitness the horrifying spectacle of Isabel moving towards becoming a ‘Portrait’, the climax occurs in chapter fifty-one when Osmond comes up with his ultimatum regarding Isabel’s proposed trip to Gardencourt to share a few moments with her dying cousin. This scene may be regarded as the climax of not only the third part but of the whole novel. Then James starts winding up the loose strands. We see him winding up Isabel’s relations with her cousin, with Henrietta, and with Caspar Goodwood. This remarkably brief section too has a heart-throbbing scene, namely of Goodwood’s passionate appeal to start all afresh and Isabel’s precipitate flight.

      Thus we find that the plot of the novel hinges not on the events as such, but upon Isabel’s relation to herself as an outcome of those events. The critic: Tonny Tanner sums it up beautifully: “The Portrait of a Lady shows us the birth of a conscience out of the spoiling of a life.” The plot is in essential “an envelope of circumstances” which explores the growing personality of Isabel.

Striking Feature

      One of the most striking features of the structure of the novel is the lapse of more than three years between chapters XXXV and XXXVI. Some readers are not all admiration and praise for James on this account. They feel that James has created them. We are told that Isabel becomes a mother and also that her child died quite early. The memory of her child does not cross Isabel’s mind even as a stray thought after that. This may be regarded as one of the limitations of James. But as we move towards the real climax of the novel we begin to have glimpses of James’s skill in circumventing his limitations. We find that the effect which those years have had on Isabel is more psychological than physical. Isabel of the second part is not the Isabel of the first part. A new complexity is added to her charm and grace, her vivacious and vibrant character has now roots of deep suffering too. As a woman who has become a mere ‘Portrait’ to decorate Osmond’s villa, she is infinitely more attractive, admirable and touching than she was as a young American girl. Thus through this presentation of the events of the omitted years retrospectively and not directly James has been able to take us to the very roots with telling effect of the juxtaposition of two similar and yet immensely different “Portraits” of the Lady.

Some devices which have Enriched the Structure of the Novel

      James has made use of a number of devices which have added to the enrichment of the novel. One such - device is the treatment of other marriages in the novel. These marriages are sometimes suggestive of parallels to Isabel’s marriage and sometimes come up with glaring antithesis. James also makes a repeated use of certain symbols like edifice, door, and eye. Symbolism and myth also help to integrate the design of The Portrait of a Lady. Garden, flower, bird, warfare, military strategy etc. all have symbolic connotations and symbolic vibrations in the novel. Towards the end of the novel symbolism starts treading hitherto untrodden paths. We have a more cosmic symbolism of light and water (of sea-imagery). All these various symbols add to the artistic ‘unity’ and ‘coherence’ of the novel. Myth too, in its own way contributes to the structure of the novel. We have the American myth of fall—the grand confrontation of Innocence and Experience. The novel also offers us the Biblical myths of the serpent and the Dove, the Rejection of Chirst by Peter. We also have the literary myths of the Virgin Goddess (Diana, the Archer), of the Fatal Woman (so popular with the Romantic poets of the 19th century) and of the quest, reminiscent of the quest of Holy Grail. In Isabel’s rejection of Caspar Goodwood in chapter fifty-five is hidden Isabel’s rejection of the American conception of freedom as an abnegation of social duty.

      The irony too adds a lot to the unity of the novel. James’s attitude to Isabel is an ironic one in the novel up to chapter thirty and we have to read between the lines to ascertain it. The irony here works both on the verbal and metaphorical plane. Towards the end we find the people who had the best capacity to enjoy life renouncing life or retreating into damp corridors of humanity as a punishment for their enthusiasm and participation in life. This seems to be the very acme of Jamesian irony.

Some other noticeable features

      One of these features is the use of Pansy which sustains and heightens reader’s interest and curiosity in the second part of the novel. In the first part we witness Isabel’s search for a husband and in the second we have Pansy’s choice of a husband with Isabel and Osmond deeply involved. We find Pansy having a keener eye and a reliability of judgment which Isabel lacked.

      Some words ought to be said about James’s opinion as to “that is obviously the best thing in the book”. James found this, “best thing” in the “long statement, just beyond the middle of the book, if my young woman’s extraordinary meditative vigil on the occasion that was to become for her such a landmark She sits up by her dying fire, far into the night, under the spell of recognitions on which she finds the last sharpness suddenly wait.” What actually phased James in this connection was his success in giving an almost dramatic momentum to the feelings of the mind of his heroine. Whether the reader find this to be the best thing or not depends on how far does he think James to be his representative in the novel.


      Thus we can conclude by saying that the remarkable skill and care that James spent on the structure of the novel has endowed it with a distinguishing feature. It has saved the novel from retreating into sentimental cliches. The structure of this novel falls somewhere between the structure of A Passage to India and that of the The Portrait of an Artist as a Youngman. The uniqueness about the structure is undoubtedly unparalleled. It is certainly one of the grand triumphs of careful, rich and subtle architectural art.

University Questions

What did Henry James think of the structure of The Portrait of a Lady ? Give your comments on its structure.
Henry James was undoubtedly a meticulous artist. What evidence of his structural skill do you find in The Portrait of a Lady ?
“Such is the aspect that today The Portrait has for me: a structure reared with an architectural competence, as Turgenieff would have said”. Elaborate.
How far do you agree with James’s own appraisal of the The Portrait of a Lady as “the most proportioned of his productions” ?

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