The Portrait of a Lady : is an American Novel

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      Van Wyck Brooks criticised James because he had cut himself off from his moorings. Brooks made James a symbol of all the dangers of expatriation and said : “And so many novelists of our own twenties lost their substance and grasp of life, it struck me that the case of James was really a symbol - I mean those novelists who had grown up in the so-called expatriate religion of art with a feeling that native lands are not important. Judging by these later cases, it seemed to be disastrous for then novelist to lose his natural connection within an inherited world that is deeply his own, when, ceasing to be in the pedigree of his own country, he is no longer an expression of the communal life”.

      Though Brooks’s criticism was answered extremely well by Edmund Wilson there are critics who tend to regard The Portrait of a Lady an American novel.

Various Influences

      In our time it has come to be recognized that if in the nineteenth century England had its George Eliot and France its Flaubert, America had as towering a figure in Henry James. Today Henry James’s novels are read as ‘modern classics’.

American Influence

      Various novelistic conventions went into the making of The Portrait of a Lady. But it can still be regarded as an American novel. The convention of realism, which James had learnt from French writers like Balzac and Flaubert as well as George Eliot, Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens contributed a lot in the making of The Portrait of a Lady. The romance tradition and Hawthorne’s art of fiction too influenced James. James has, with remarkable skill, made the romance element impact a poetic touch and glow to the realistic substance of the novel. Richard Chase has written about chapter forty-two: “In this chapter, James was able to achieve supremely the circuit of the real and the ideal of action and fantasy, and thus to capture along with the real subject of the story of wonder and beauty of romance while at the same time rejecting the conventional devices of romance”.

      James never appreciated romance as a moral view of the world. But he never bade good-bye to the appeal of romance. This appeal of romance is interwoven in the novel using metaphor and the charm of the heroine. The theme of loneliness to figures vibrantly in the novel. The fate of the lonely individual - this was an important theme dwelt at great lengths in American literature. Hester Psynne of The Scarlet Letter seems to be an early Isabel. Very much like Isabel she too does not accept the easy way out but chooses to live in that very town where she had begun and ended her ‘public’ as well as private life.

From Innocence to Experience

      The Portrait of a Lady is set in Europe but its major characters are expatriate Americans. The alienation and spiritual isolation of these expatriates is revealed to us. In the nineteenth century, art, history and superior graces of life were in abundance in Europe. The nineteenth-century American has had a deep longing for all this. The radical contrarieties of the nineteenth-century thought came to be stated in terms of ‘innocence’ and ‘experience’. The myth of American ‘innocence’ confronting the vast, complex, and often corrupted civilization of Europe drew the attention of many writers. Hawthorne and Melville also dealt with it. Their novels articulate the view that spiritual isolation and proneness to evil are the products of American experience of Europe. James too deals with this myth in this novel. The image of Isabel that we get in the third chapter, as an inexperienced girl wildly reading in an attempt to gain experience firmly establishes the novel as a further exploration of one of the oldest themes in literature—the innocent in search of experience.

Isable : The American Character

      James has analyzed the American character in The Portrait of a Lady. This is done through Isabel, but the analysis is very complex whether we take Isabel to be representative of the American character or not will be a subjective observation. Despite this, Isabel as an nineteenth century young American woman, has some characteristics which can be termed as ‘typical’. The innocence of Isabel, not taking into account the ambiguity that it has, which nourishes her passion for a free and unlimited exploration of life is suggestive of certain dimensions of American character. This love and enthusiasm for freedom has its limitations too. James argues that for every good that is achieved or attempted, there is a corresponding loss in prestige, pain or patronage. Even with her dynamic energy in order to achieve her ‘fate’ Isabel must flout custom, ignore advice, tread on manners and in the end, having acted without knowledge of her surroundings, submit to considerable pain.

      Isabel, when she comes to Europe is a young, beautiful and vivacious woman. She had blindness to reality and always viewed life through the medium of literature. Confrontation was her intense passion. She sought a general impression of life to which she could add footnotes later on. “She spent her time in thinking of beauty and bravery and magnanimity. She had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action”. Her imagination too was ridiculously strong and active. But James is not all admiration for Isabel as he unravels her different facets by and by. Time and again the ironic touch, such as her superficial idealism and theories were no more than a “tangle of vague outlines” makes us understand that Isabel’s imagination and enthusiasm are insufficient to cope with this sinister and morally intricate world.

      All this is an outcome of the great American assumption that “experience is the best teacher” and every kind of experience equips one to face life in a better way. James would tend to agree but he also knows that such naked and bubbling enthusiasm for experience is helpless in the face of a more ordered (possibly corrupt) and all-powerful system such as that represented by the duplicity Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond. As a devotee of free experience, Isabel is left in the end aware but trapped, concerned but powerless, alive but no longer free.

      According to Arnold Kettle the theme of The Portrait of a Lady is the revelation of the inadequacy of Isabel's view of ‘freedom’ and of her sentimental idealism which is the weaker side of the American character. At the end of the novel she learns that suffering is the price one pays for coming to terms with the moral intricacy of the world. She also realizes that in life one has to do something more than merely pleasing oneself alone. Financial cares, conventions, compulsions of history, inhibitions and social sophistication don’t exist for her when she comes to Europe but in the end all these acquire new meanings for her and we find that she has discovered life in Europe but she discovered it within herself actually, and discovered it only to make to sure that she kept nothing for herself. She realizes that all is not as simple as a view from Albany would suggest. The ‘American’ personality must come to grips with the muddy matters and decaying bricks of a more experienced world represented by the ruins of Rome and their timeless teachings.

Criticism of the American Character

      Janies comes up with criticism of the American character in the portrayal of Henrietta Stackpole, Caspar Goodwood and Mrs. Touchett. These characters are very frank but sometimes this frankness acquires an unadmirable touch and disregards the sensibilities of others. These characters have no concern for form and content. James did not have much liking and respect for journalists of his time. In Henrietta Janies was concerned with the unleashing of such a bold powerful “emanation of the great democracy of the continent, the country, the nation”. Noticeably for James it had bravado and charm, but the overall odor was enough to knock one down. Henrietta’s lack of concern for, privacy also never earned James’s admiration. Caspar Goodwood is perhaps a victim of the same American impetuosity which James objected to. But there are qualities in Caspar Goodwood which tend to earn a recognition from James. Caspar Goodwood’s eternal fidelity, his constant pursuit, and his final passionate outburst made James realize that these things had their own place and their own value when set against the formal background of European patterns. Mrs. Touchett does not love Europe at all and spends most of her time abroad. She is one of those expatriate Americans, who casually use Europe but seldom penetrate any of its interesting depths.

Search for an Ideal Civilization

      James was critical of the lack of civilization in America and considered the Americans to have been salvaged from the history and civilization of Europe. The civilization of Europe seemed to him to be more sophisticated, more refined though morally more ambiguous. Europe stands for a complex life, symbolized in the novel and all the characters represent a scale of maladjustment to life, symbolized by Europe. In this novel is interwoven James’s reflection of life in New England and Italy too. James is not only critical of every civilization but he also shows its plus points and how these plus points will contribute in the making of an ideal society.


      Thus The Portrait of a Lady is not purely American novel, since the international theme is one of its major themes. It is an American novel only because its major characters are expatriate Americans and they have all the Americanness alive and bubbling in them.

University Questions

Discuss The Portrait of a Lady as an American novel.
What strengths and weaknesses of the American character are revealed by Isabel ?
What criticism of the American character do you find in the portrayal of Henrietta Stackpole, Caspar Goodwood and Mrs. Touchett ?

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