The Technique of the Novel The Portrait of a Lady

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      Introduction. Henry James was always preoccupied with problems of form and technique in fiction. He was fully occupied in evolving a satisfactory aesthetic. He found the Victorian English novel deficient in beauty precisely because of its rambling quality and lack of form. James felt that the novel should develop a complete grammar and rhetoric of fiction. For him a ‘search for form’ was, at bottom, a search for a meaning in life. The novel, he believed, ‘is ethics in action’

      Novel an organic entity. Henry James felt that each story or tale needed its own unique form. No single method or technique could cover the sum of involved human situations and relationships. One cannot prescribe exactly how a story would grow from a seed and acquire completeness. He felt the novel to be an organic entity, and trusted the imagination to lead the way out of all difficulties and find the form that best expressed the given theme or idea. All the same, it is the artist’s business to keep a watchful eye on the proceedings, preserving the rituals and codes as he uses aids and techniques.

      Ingredients of a novel. In Henry James’s view, an achieved work of art should have movement, intensity, coherence, vividity, economy, roundness and objectivity. It should, of course, also have an aura of reality and ‘life’, moral energy and vision, and style. A novel should be a work of rounded perfection with a high tone and a civilized air.

      James and the ‘point of view’ technique. From the beginning of his writing career James was interested in the point of view technique. This technique is just one of the ways of narrating a story. There are many techniques—the omniscient author technique, the third-person narrator, the first person narrator, the epistolary, etc. James had high aesthetic aims for the novel; he wanted to use a technique which would best meet his needs for objectivity and lifelikeness. He felt that the omniscient author technique had a touch of manipulation and strained the reader’s credibility, and that the first person narrator technique was susceptible to ‘the terrible fluidity of self-revelation’ and, therefore, ‘foredoomed to looseness’. His aim was to bring the narration as close to the center of experience as possible.

      The point of view technique is the angle from which a story is told. The relationship between reader and writer, between the story and narrator is complex and shifting. The author’s point of view, though God-like and superior, is not necessarily truer or more reliable than a particular character’s way of looking at the shifting nature of experience and reality. James felt that if he used a selected consciousness and had almost all the events and episodes filtered through it, the story acquired the truth, warmth and immediacy of felt experience. Furthermore, the form and structure automatically became chaste because this technique did away with all the things which did not fall directly within the orbit of the character’s situation or his/her line of vision. The consciousness had to be a polished mirror or ‘reflector’.

      The technique of ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. In the 1905 Preface James made it clear that a “single small cornerstone, the conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny, would form the basis of the ‘spacious house’ of The Portrait of a Lady’’. The young ‘presumptuous’ woman would act as a compositional center to which all characters and situations return as of necessity. From the beginning the novelist is obliged to see that all matters which do not directly concern the heroine are scrupulously subordinated.

      In the initial chapters of The Portrait of a Lady, James is not absent entirely, for he is continually commenting on Isabel’s background, prospects and character. We also see Isabel’s mind as she would like us to see it, and as she herself tends to see it. Gradually, as the novel goes on, though the author’s intrusions will never stop till the end, they become less obtrusive as Isabel’s story begins to gather momentum. Soon enough, she becomes the radiating centre, and practically all the characters and events are illumined in relation to her fortunes. Progressively, she draws us closer to her own way of looking at things. Her expanding consciousness becomes our area of interest. Her married life is seen through her consciousness and we see only what she is willing to reveal We enter the realm of psychological drama to the exclusion of almost everything else. This, in a way, is one of the inevitable defects of the point of view technique. The psychological interest deprives the novel of the opportunity for horizontal expansion.

      Ralph Touchett’s consciousness is used to some extent in the novel. We see things through his wry comments which constitute a kind of authorial commentary. He is, of course, not allowed to become a point of view character as such. But his vision is necessary for our understanding of Isabel’s fate.

      Departures from a single point of view are inevitable in any long work of fiction. The Portrait of a Lady also shows such departures or ‘treacheries’ as James called it. Thus in the scene in which Ralph broaches the delicate question of the legacy to his dying father and that in which Madame Merle and Osmond arrange for Isabel’s marriage we cannot possibly have Isabel’s consciousness involved.

      Conclusion. The point of view technique, despite limitations, has served the story well in The Portrait of a Lady. The technique is not simply a matter of engineering a theme, but is, indeed, theme and vision in action and how it is used in The Portrait of a Lady.

University Questions

Write a short note on Henry James as a ‘master the craft of novel’ with reference to The Portrait of a Lady.
Critically examine the technique that Henry James, employs in The Portrait of a Lady.

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