The Portrait of a Lady as a Institution of Marriage

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      In The Portrait of a Lady, we get divergent views on the sacred, bond of marriage. James himself wrote about marriage : “I believe almost as much in matrimony for most other people as I believe in it little for myself”, and that “one’s attitude towards marriage is the most characteristic part doubtless of one’s general attitude towards life. If I were to marry I should be guilty in my own eyes of inconsistency—I should pretend to think quite a bit better of life than I really do”. James too recognized the importance of marriage as an institution. In The Portrait of a Lady James displays the institution of marriage not as a settled mold but in the process of being, shaped under the shaping pressure of the realities of life.

      Isabel regards marriage a sort of bothersome ordeal which slowly stifles one’s capacity for the surprises and shocks of experience. She too finally marries Osmond, believing that she would get her most deeply cherished enjoyment i.e, ‘to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world’. But her marriage turns out to be ‘a narrow dark alley with a dead wall at the end.’

      The novel focusses first on the prospective form of Isabel’s marriage and then on the prospects of Pansy’s marriage. To Caspar Goodwood marriage is a ‘ghastly form’ while to Osmond, “the sterile delettante” it is ‘a magnificent form’. The marriages of the Countess and Lord Warburton reveal the institution of marriage in its most conventional form but Pansy’s prospective marriage shows the institution as moving away from the iron-confines of convention and being established as a form of aspiration and commitment.

      Mr. Touchett who valued Isabel’s freedom and thus did not press her to marry Lord Warburton, is the person whose marriage is the least successful one. The first marriages of both Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond have ended in death and their own affair never culminated in marriage. Ralph does not marry and Lord Warburton’s marriage does not seem to offer any real fulfillment. There is a possibility and a hope too, that Henrietta and Mr. Bentling’s marriage might be a happy one.

      Isabel’s search of values and her love for the free exploration of life ends with marriage. Laurence Bedwell Halland in The Expanse of Vision writes that Isabel’s involvement is with the actual form of her strange marriage with Osmond. Within that form Isabel’s and Osmond’s child is born (he dies at the age of six months) and Isabel acquires her step-daughter. Within a span of year all the intimacy between Isabel and Osmond dies and the marriage retains its form but the substance has withered away. Isabel now views marriage not merely as a ‘contract’ but as a ‘sacrament’. She says, after Osmond has told her not to go to England: “A gulf of difference had opened between them, but nonetheless, it was his desire that she should stay, it was a horror to him that she should go...and mitigate meant that a woman should cleave to the man with whom, uttering tremendous vows she had stood at the altar.” One of the reasons forwarded for Isabel’s, return to Osmond is that she believed in the sanctity of marriage. She always honored promises and spoken pledges. Moreover, her belief in the sanctity of marriage adds a new dignity to her character and now finds the institution of marriage on the ambitious purposes, deliberate choice, and active consent of the woman. Isabel values the sanctity and strictness of the bond of marriage and determines to play her role as apparent and the fact she hopes to assist Pansy and Ned Rosier in gaining their heaven in all this is prefigured some of the conspicuous features of marriage in modern America.

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