Symbolism in Henry James - The Portrait of a Lady

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“A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead”.

      These lines from Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ have a remarkably powerful symbolic meaning woven in them and a keen reader can never forget them. The reverberations, the vibrations, the ripples that spread out after the momentary splash are innumerable and have no fixed colour or shade. Such unprecedented use of symbolism is one of the distinguishing features of this poem.

Symbol and Allegory

      The use of symbolism, in the way illustrated above always adds a new charm and grace to any work of art. C.S. Lewis was right in saying “Allegory is a mode of expression; symbolism is a mode of thought'’. In an allegory it is easier to discover the hidden meaning; indeed it is the allegory itself which superficially conceals it. The purpose of allegory is to strengthen, by an exercise of fancy, the received doctrine and the shared moral code. Symbols, on the contrary, put accepted meanings into doubt, introduce new ones, and finally create a radically different alignment of sympathies. Undoubtedly, symbols have an edge over allegory.

Purpose of Symbolism

      A.N. Whitehead summed up the purpose of symbolism when he said that the object of symbolism is the enhancement of the importance of what it symbolizes. Virginia Woolf explains the purpose of symbolism in the following words: “Aeschylus has in some mysterious way a general force, a symbolic power”. Explaining this power she says: ‘‘By the bold and running use of metaphor he will amplify and give us, not the thing itself, but the reverberation and reflection which, taken into his mind, the thing has made; close enough to the original to illustrate it, remote enough to hidden, enlarge, and make splendid”. Explaining her view-point as to how symbolism works in a subtle manner, she says : “If we try to analyze our sensations we shall find that we are worked upon as if by music—the senses are stirred rather than the brain. The rise and fall of the sentence immediately soothe us to mood and remove us to a distance in which the near fades and details is distinguished. The motion is never started, it is suggested and brought slowly by repeated images before us until it says, in all its complexity, complete.”

      These observations of Virginia Woolf will help us to understand and analyze better the use of symbolism in The Portrait of a Lady.

Symbolism is Organic and not Mechanical

      Henry James complained in his essay on Hawthorne in 1879 that symbolism in Hawthorne's “romances” was “inorganic” and “mechanical”. In Hawthorne’s novel, we might find symbolism at times endowed with deliberate and obtrusive touches but in The Portrait of a Lady, which is quite reminiscent of Women in Love in its use of symbolism, it is sprinkled with ease and beauty on its every page. The limitations of Hawthorne’s technique have been surmounted by James and here symbolism operates with a great subtlety. The most outstanding aspect of symbolism in this novel is the fact that symbolism seems to grow in the very subject of the novel. Doors, windows, houses, gardens always have the lion’s share of consideration and comment in any discussion of James’s symbolism. This has been sufficiently proved by a variety of critics like Dorothy Van Ghent, David Gallaway, F.O. Matthiessen Adeline Tintner, Austin Warren and R.W. Stallman. The symbols that James has used are fully organic and perfectly interwoven in the texture of the novel.

Each and every detail is significant

      We come to grips with the meaning of the novel mostly through Isabel’s observations and thus the symbolic import of different images becomes obvious only in retrospect. For example James introduces his characters with their shadows. In the striking aura of wit, gentility and warmth it is an entirely insignificant detail and it sounds like one. But later on we discover the significance of this mere realistic description. The significance comes to mind when James describes the shadows which gather in Madame Merle’s room as she plays at the piano at the time of her first meeting with Isabel; when we see the shadows in Osmond’s Villa; when we see Isabel and Osmond walking through the shaded Cascine during their engagement; and finally when Isabel sits at night before a dead fire and burnt-out candles, realizing that her life has become a dark narrow alley with a dead wall at the end. Gradually, the Shadows put on the symbolic import of cultural ambiguities and moral obscurity which has surrounded Isabel. These shadows also tell us something about Isabel herself. Isabel’s search has been a search of Shadows; we first meet Isabel with Mrs. Touchett in the dimly lighted library at her house in Albany; a shiver of comfort runs through her veins in the shadowed vastness of St. Peter’s and in the end we find her running out of the “white lightning’’ of Caspar Goodwood’s embrace. This search of shadows is symbolic of many things—her fear of the world, her fear of physical contact, a dislike for the broad daylight and a retreat into the realm of dimness etc.

      We can add that James’s symbols, at their richest, fully answer the requirements, of Coleridge’s word ‘esemplastic’. They are continuously being shaped into new wholes and in case of Isabel, they portray her character, her growing awareness, and the shifting light and shades of her ‘Portrait’.

Houses : symbolic of the culture

      James’s use of buildings has been analyzed as being used for background, character definition, parallels to theme and situation, symbols, and monuments for invoking the past. As such their details reveal a multitude of interests and associations.

      If we take up the definition of symbolism as to be the residual meaning in an object or metaphor, the houses in The Portrait of a Lady are symbolic of the culture of their inhabitants. Gardencourt, with its spacious and picturesque lawns and gardens has captured the very serenity and maturity of the civilization of its inhabitants. Isabel sees the house as romantic and picturesque. It is only much later that she appreciates it as something more real and more sacred than that. After the opening glimpses we move back to the house in Albany, New England. The most important of many suggestive details about this house is the “condemned door”, the entrance which ‘‘was secured by bolts which a particularly slender little girl found it impossible to slide”. Later on we find Isabel locked in. One more detail is particularly prophetic : “She had the whole house to choose from and the room she chose was the most depressed of its scenes”. James made repeated use of the metaphor ‘the house of life’ and out of its many rooms, Isabel chooses the darkest and the most imprisoning one.

      Osmond’s house is described marvelously. Osmond’s Villa, with its “antique, solid, weather—worn yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character” and its massive crossbarred, windows “placed at such a height that curiosity, even on tip-toe expired before it reached them.” “It had heavy lids, but no eyes, the use in reality looked another way”. All this is true of its owner. Osmond’s palace of art turned out to be, for Isabel, “the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation”.

      Similarly, the Palazzo Roccanera is a kind of domestic fortress, a pile which bore a stern old Roman name which smelt of historic deeds, “of crime and craft and violence”. Pansy’s convent has all. the appearance of a prison to Isabel’s clearer vision. On the contrary, some architecture can offer consolation. For example we have a beautiful passage describing Isabel’s ride in Rome after her discovery of the truth about Osmond : “She had long before taken old Rome into her confidence, for, in a world of ruins, the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that crumbled for centuries and yet were still upright, she dropped her secret sadness into the silence; of lonely places”. This is a powerful and moving description of bruised and erring spirit absorbing reminders and consoling clues from the marred but splendid debris of human habitations of the past.

      All the crucial events in Isabela's career occur in houses. When Lord Warburton proposes to her on the sunlit lawns of Gardencourt, Caspar’s courtship is in her mind as she has just finished reading his letter; and when years later Caspar comes and wants to rescue her from the snares and grips of Osmond, what is in her mind is Lord Warburton’s visit a few minutes ago to bid her goodbye, Somewhat like six years ago. When Caspar Goodwood kisses her, she runs back to a dimly-lit house. She finds sanctuary in dark houses. In gardens she defers “the need of really facing her crisis”. It is in chapter fifty-nine that a complete and clear identification between a house and the implicit moral values of the civilization is defined.

      Doors, windows, architecture the appurtenances of a house are referred to time and again in the novel. Ralph keeps a band in the ante-room which keeps the sounds of the world from reaching: the private apartments, and it makes the world think that dancing: as going on within”. Henrietta walks in without knocking at the door i.e. she has no sense of respect for privacy ; Gilbert Osmond reminds Isabel that he always knocks at the door before entering, i.e. his sense of decorum never mitigates. In the same way, the Forum and the Collonates place Isabel’s suffering in a historical perspective, offering it historical alliance.

Gardens, closely related to the symbolism of architecture

      Gardens are certainly important in this book. At the start of her European journey Isabel regards her inner world as a garden and indeed the happiest moments of her life are spent in gardens. In Gardencourt there is no lack of gardens and Isabel’s best days are spent here only. There is only a sparse garden at Osmond’s Florentine Villa and Palazzo Roccanar has no garden at all. The Garden becomes symbolic of pleasure and happiness. But towards the end, however, the tables are turned. In the garden there are temptations in the form of Caspar Goodwood and thus the pleasure it then offers is guilty pleasure, a self-corroding pleasure. When Isabel runs; away from the garden into the house she chooses the path of duty that the civilization offers her.

Flower and Bird Symbolism

      Flower and bird symbolism too recurs in the novel. Pansy is again and again compared to flowers—her name itself is indicative of a flower. Pansy has been brought up by her father and her relatives as to be a perfect representative of her civilization, as a flower is in some sense representative of its very soil and climate Isabel and Countess Gemini, on the other hand, are compared to birds, because like birds they detest confines and love ever-widening horizons of freedom. A critic has said that even Madame Merle’s name is indicative of a bird.

Light too has Symbolic Connotations

      Henry James has used light as a symbol, its presence suggestive of perception and its absence denoting lack of comfort and security. Talking about Isabel James says : “Deep in her soul—it was the deepest thing there, lay a belief that if a certain light should dawn she could give herself completely, but this image, on the whole, was too formidable to be attractive. Isabel's thoughts hovered about it, but they seldom rested on it for long; after a little it ended in alarms”. Such a light does dawn for her in the white lightning of Caspar’s kiss but then it was too late and she flew from it seeking refuge in the domestic light of Gardencourt.

      Undoubtedly the most important symbolism in the later part of the novel is the symbolism of light and water, almost touching Lawrence heights. Isabel sees “light” in Goodwood’s kiss and in her Midnight Vigil we see the lights going out. Towards the end of novel the sea-imagery also becomes conspicuous. The sea-image is predominating in Isabel’s last encounter with Caspar Goodwood in the garden at Gardencourt. With Lawrencean-Freudian-symbolism complex the sea image is suggestive of Isables’s urge to ‘plunge herself into action, or leave herself to the effect of the healing qualities of sea which helps one in forgetting pain in an act of abandonment. Yet, we find Isabel withdrawing from this oblivion (the sea is symbolic of forgetfulness in death or in sexual abandon) and choosing the narrow path to a meaningless existence, which has all the glamour of civilization.

      To communicate the theme of growing awareness, James has used the symbol of seeing, Henrietta Stackpole is a stock Jamesian character and her presence is a must in the novel. It is she who has an incapacity to ‘see’ beyond the literal surfaces, to understand the gulf separating illusion and reality to come to terms with depth between undeveloped and developed consciousness.

Materials of art too have a symbolic function

      Objects of art have also received a symbolic use in this novel, but this symbolism operates at a lower level of intensity. We find Madame Merle, in a mood of dejection comparing her life to a broken tea-cup. We also become aware of the symbolic irony when we find Osmond copied a picture of a coin (dead) from a book of archaeology (dead). His activity at this point is suggestive of his meaningless and dry life. The title of the novel to deserves attention here. The title is ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. We find the novel to be a ‘Portrait’ of Isabel which is to be imprisoned in the ‘frame’ of morals and conscience and seek its place in Osmond’s museum.

Symbolism of Warfare and Strategy

      This type of symbolism is also abounding in The Portrait of a Lady. It does not seem to be a discordant note since Isabel’s quarrel with Osmond and Madame Merle and Madame Merle’s machinations which have led to those quarrels which occupy a large part of the novel. The irony too keeps lurking in this use of military symbolism as it conveys the mistaken nature of Isabel’s search for identity in the novel.


      Thus we find that an excellent use of symbolism is there in The Portrait of a Lady.

University Questions

Write a note on symbolism in The Portrait of a Lady.
How do the materials of art (paintings bric-a-brac, architecture etc.,) function in The Portrait of a Lady ?
How do different symbols in the novel add to its ‘unity’ and ‘coherence’ ?

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