The Portrait of a Lady is a Tragic-Comic - Ironic Melodrama

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      The canvas of The Portrait of a Lady is a large one with respect to characters, themes, technical aspects etc. Complexity is one of its distinguishing features. It is this complexity which disturbs the leader when he wants to class it as a tragedy or a comedy or a melodrama. This difficulty is the outcome of the fact that it has all the elements. The early part of the novel is comedy and the critics have come out with the observation that it is a comedy or a comedy laboring under an imposed sense of tragedy. In the later part of the novel we find that Isabel’s freshness, vitality, beauty and dangerous innocence of youth have bidden her goodbye forever. Her love for life was too intense and now she is the one who has withdrawn from life to creep out her years in lonely corridors. But Isabel, in the end also becomes conscious of some new vistas. Thus we find in the novel a strange admixture of comic and tragic elements but surprisingly enough, there are no abrupt transitions, no inconsistencies. The ending too is in accordance with this intermingling of tragic and comic elements.

      As a melodrama, the story of The Portrait of a Lady is based upon the convention of the heiress betrayed. The characters are either extremely good or extremely bad. In a melodrama, the plot aims at evoking sensation and sentiment. In short, melodrama, whether naive or sophisticated, is direful sentimentality. Irony, on the other hand, is a form of analogy that proposes a congruity between things that are obviously incongruous as if it could not really matter. The ironist may sport with melodrama in the service of ethical norms, and is detached only in a very limited sense. James directs irony against the spirit of melodrama.

      As a melodrama, we find that in the novel we have both the hero and the villain. Osmond is generally described as a ‘Machiavellian instrument’ or a ‘figure of unrelieved malignity; but scarcely a believable human being. He emerges as the fortune-hunter of the melodrama.

      The melodramatic elements start gaining an upper hand in the second half of the novel The Portrait of a Lady. Now we have characters who value Isabel’s welfare from the core of their heart. There are Caspar Goodwood, Lord Warburton, Henrietta and the Touchetts. Madame Marie, Gilbert and Osmond on the other hand can be termed as evil characters. We also have a second little melodrama involving Pansy and Rasier, within the melodrama. This melodrama has an ironic function. It helps us in searching the golden mean as for Isabel’s character and situation is concerned since she is shown strong and helpless at the same time. When Osmond orders her not to go to Ralph she loses all impetus and does not recover until Countess Gemini tells her everything in the next scene—the scene in which the novel most clearly approaches straight melodrama.

      Indeed experience has betrayed innocence and made her an innocence betrayed. Pansy’s cause becomes Isabel’s ‘objective correlative, and a second chance to carry the “innocence of her own Gardencourt life into experience.” “She returns to Osmond as refreshed Heroine campaigning for innocence betrayed. Pansy allows Isabel’s moral and aesthetic senses to harmonize at last.”

      The last encounter between Goodwood and Isabel is often called a melodramatic scene. Goodwood appeals to her to leave everything behind and start all afresh. His appeal comes close but falls short. Here is scene’s melodramatic power, and its powerful irony. Isabel is victorious in the end because she does not succumb to the temptations of Goodwood but, it is an ironic victory of innocence.

      Thus we can class The Portrait of a Lady as a tragic-comic - ironic-melodrama.

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