Themes of The Portrait of a Lady

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      In this essay we are concerned with some minor themes of the novel. These themes may not be of the status of the international theme but they are so integrated in the novel that they do deserve and demand some special attention. The Portrait of a Lady shares these themes with all the modern fiction. This is why this novel has been called a modern classic of American fiction. Undoubtedly the book is a modern classic in many ways, in its uniqueness and universality, in its psychological complexity, and in its technique and form.

      Now we shall deal with the themes which have sprinkled a touch of universality and modernity on the novel. The most important is the theme of isolation.

Theme of Isolation

      Sense of isolation seems to have become an inseparable part of the tragic hero. In the modern world, the sense of loneliness, which at times becomes almost an oppression, is gaining a stronger hold on the human mind and soul. James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady moves from America to England and then to Italy. But as far as human life and isolation are concerned, the conclusion is just the same everywhere. Hawthorne and the whole tradition of the American novel had a great impact on Henry James and the theme of isolation in The Portrait of a Lady is greatly reminiscent of the theme of isolation in Hawthorne’s novels. This undercurrent theme had its major oppressive influence on the heroine Isabel Archer. Some other characters in the novel also suffer from it.

Isabel’s early Life is Adumbrative

      We find Isabel locked in her house at Albany studying the history of German thought. It was of her very character which drew a clear line between her and her sisters. She begins as a girl alone in the world and ends as a woman alone, and her inner life of thought, feeling, instinctive response^, and moral speculation is the novel itself. Leav・ ing America she comes to Europe, Throughout the novel, she is surrounded by the expatriate Americans who themselves are fighting a battle as far as retaining their Americanness is concerned. This results in emotional isolation for Isabel.

Isabel's married life led her deeper into the Hell of Isolation

      Isabel refuses the hand of Lord Warburton and later of Caspar Goodwood. In it, she felt a great thrill since she exercised her power of independence for the first time. In this connection, it is useful to quote a few lines from a conversation between Henrietta Stackpole and Isabel.

“I love you, Isabel” said Miss Stackpole with feeling.
“Well, if you love let me alone. I asked that of Mr. Goodwood, and must also ask it of you.”
“Take care you are not let alone too much.”

      “That is what Mr. Goodwood said to me. I told him I must take the risks.” Here we can understand that this desire for complete freedom is itself a form of isolation. Adoring such freedom Isabel treads her path of life but stops at Osmond’s villa. She married Osmond in the full exercise of her freedom. But in marriage too, she found the stifling isolation, One of the high points of the novel comes when Isabel, meditating alone before the fire one night, slowly comes to understand her situation, separated from the world and from her friends, married to a man who hates her and is trying to force her will to his, the hopes and easy ideals of youth is gone. Now it becomes crystal-clear to Isabel as well as to the reader what life with Osmond means—a retreat within oneself into the realms of cramping isolation.

Isabel Succeeds in Lessening her sense of Isolation

      With a realization of what life with Osmond means Isabel’s sense of isolation is not mitigated or redeemed. Osmond may succeed in cutting her off from the world but he can never succeed in cutting her off from her sense of participation in life, from the sense of continuity of the human lot. The background of Rome now achieves a sympathetic touch:

      “She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet still were upright ; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where it's very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter’s day, or stood in a moldy church to which no one came, she could almost smile it and think of its smallness. Small it was, in the large Roman record, and her haunting sense of the continuity of the human lot easily carried her from the less to the greater.”

      In the last pages of the novel we start getting the impression that Isabel’s love of others is on increase. It sometimes touches the heights of Christian charity even. The pain that she feels at the death of Ralph Touchett is more than enough of a good illustration. One can contradict it by stating that her emotions for Osmond have recoiled but such a contention just reminds us that in human relationships there is give and take.

Other Characters who Suffer from this sense of isolation

      The confines of isolation are not there just for Isabel alone. Osmond, her husband, too lives in isolation owing to his selfishness and conceit. He has renounced the world and the humanity. He is isolated in his self-sufficiency. When Isabel is drawn into the closed circle of Osmond’s isolation, the emotional aridity and isolation of Isabel begins. Besides this we find that many of the characters in the novel have isolated themselves within some private compartments. These compartments may have been god-given or world-given but they always symbolize a retreat from life.

Failure of Communication

      One important theme having a modern touch incorporated in The Portrait of a Lady is that- of the failure of communication. This ‘failure of communication’ always seems to melt into the ‘sense of isolation. According to David Galloway this novel is distinctly about the failure to communicate. We find that the Touchett marriage has ended in separation; the first marriages of both Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond have ended in death, and their own affair never results in marriage; Ralph, of course, never marries; and we suspect that Lord Warburton has made the sort of ‘convenient’ marriage which will never be able to offer him any deep personal fulfillment. Only Henrietta and the pliable, colorless Mr. Bantling seem to have the hope of anything like a happy personal relationship. The failure to communicate is imaged by Mrs. Touchett’s ‘inscrutable’ telegrams! She communicates clearly only once and that is with the news that Ralph is dying; and while she has a passion for receiving cards, she does not like to receive people. Ralph himself enjoys music because it ‘keeps the sounds of the world from reaching the private apartments’. Dramatically, the failure of communication and hence the failure for James, of life, is counter-pointed by death—the slow death of Mr. Touchett, the death of Isabel's infant son, and finally Ralph’s own death.

The Sex Theme

      As far as the sex theme and its various dimensions are concerned, the critics are still divided. Obviously this theme has a lot to do with Isabel’s final encounter with Caspar Goodwood at the end of the novel. As Caspar Goodwood kisses her: “It was extra-ordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its identity and made one with this art of possession.” All the description is extremely important in this context. Isabel rushes away from Caspar Goodwood’s inviting arms. We are certain that it Isabel is afraid. (The sex-theme is connected inextricably with Isabel’s “fear” and repression). Even though Isabel a moment before recongnized, “that she had never been loved before”, she leaves everything behind and chooses as if the ruins of her life. This “fear” is a recurrent phenomenon in the novel. “Fear”, as various critics, including Tonny Tanner and Dorothea Krook, have suggested, is the emotion that Isabel Archer must feeL This fear has been related to the Puritanical streak in her character. Dorothea Krook feels that Isabel’s “dread is mainly provoked when her integrity or personal identity is threatened by external aggression from somebody”. For James, as well as Isabel the most heinous sin is the Kantian sin of someone “making use” of someone else.

      Different reasons for Isabel’s rejection of Warburton and Caspar Good wood have been advanced. Those who wish to lavish attention on the sex-theme are more concerned with the fact that Isabel’s rejection springs from this fear of sex. This is the only reason why, towards the end of the novel, Isabel is drawn to the sexless Love of a dying cousin. Isabel had a deep respect for the sanctity of marriage. For F. O Matthiessen, Isabel’s flight from Caspar Goodwood at the conclusion of the novel was precisely a sign of James’s awareness of how Isabel, in spite of her marriage had remained essentially a virgin. It is also interesting to note, here, that Isabel’s name, Archer indicates Diana, the virgin-goddess of mythology.

      Maxwell Geisnar, a really hostile critic has related the whole approach of Isabel to James’s own prudery, as Isabel is a transvestite of the author. According to him the incest theme also lurks in the corners of this sex-theme, because, we find,—Osmond too hints to it—that all of Pansy’s suitors are Isabel’s admirers too. He adds : “That the novel has another hidden source of interest in due simply to the unacknowledged conflict between the intuitions of the artist, including his revealing heroine.” It may seem quite convincing at first glance but when we delve deeper into the matter we find that all this is just off-the-point. No doubt, it is the author himself who creates the characters and some part of his personality automatically enters the characters but we should never overlook the ‘negative capability’ of a truly creative artist. If it is not true, Hamlet was no more than Shakespeare himself ?

      We sum up this discussion of the sex-theme by quoting Edmund L. Volpe’s remarks on James’s theory of sex. He writes : “James is not guilty of the French writers of ‘sin’, the isolation of the sexual passion ; he studies the passion in relation to the rest of man’s life. But sex—no matter how one studies it—is a physical passion, and James includes in his novels very few physical manifestations of the passion, even the more innocent ones. There are not many scenes like the one at the end of The Portrait of a Lady in, which Caspar Goodwood forcefully kisses Isabel. The omission of such scenes is, however, logical. As the historian of man’s inner life, James was not interested in depicting overt actions, unless they revealed the drama of the inner worlds Neither the way Caspar kisses Isabel, nor the way her lips meet his is of interest, unless they revealed the drama of the inner world. He describes for us the effects of that kiss on Isabel’s mind and, soul. Her reactions reveal to the reader her decision to return to Osmond, her idealism, and perhaps, as some critics have suggested her fear of the sexually Caspar represents. This kind of concentration upon the inner rainer than the external world accounts not only for the absence of scenes portraying physical passion, it also accounts for the unique atmosphere of the later Jamesian novel, that nebulous atmosphere that ne created by subordinating what in a Balzacian novel predominates overt actions, setting the physical appearance of the character. James paints the surface world only when it will serve to illuminate the inner world of his characters or to make the concrete intangible feelings and human reactions he is describing.”

      These remarks are indispensable, not only from the point of view of our considerations the sex-theme but they also help us in deciding our approach to a Jamesian novel.

Lack of the Sense of Belonging

      This lack of sense of belonging is again a modern phenomenon. We do witness the pitiable fate of human beings trying to search their roots. It happens in life and in fiction both. It is precisely this that incites human beings to start caring immensely and unproportionately for the surface, the appearance and the illusions. In The Portrait of a Lady this theme never comes to the surface but is intimately woven into the texture of the novel itself. We find James describing in detail the houses, the gardens and the landscapes. The characters, too in their turn care more for these things. Besides this we have the devotees to appearances, namely Madame Merle and Osmond and Isabel too, to some extent. Madame Merle tells Isabel in the chapter nineteen :

      “...when you've lived as long as I will see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of cricumstances. There’s no such thing as isolated man or woman; we’re each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What we call our “self”? Where does it begin ? where does it end ? It overflows into everything that belongs to us and then it flays back again one’s self-for other people—is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, furniture, one’s garments the books one reads, the company one keeps—these things they are all expressive.”

      To care forms, for the appearances to a reasonable limit is a good thing but to cross that limit is a great blunder. Osmond too has sacrificed himself for his devotion to forms. Both Osmond and Madame Merle are grossly, stiflingly conventional and Osmond s effects are produced by a motive ‘as vulgar as art was great’. Osmond time and again appeals to Isabel to preserve appearance and their married life is no more than an appearance. All this enticement by forms, appearances and appurtenances has come into being because these characters have lost hold of their roots. It is because of the lack of communication, the lack of solid human relationships and the imperfectability of human understanding that appearances and forms are gaining a new momentum.

      After having some discussion on some of the themes in The Portrait of a Lady we can conclude that though these themes are like the undercurrent in the novel, the modernity and universality which is ingrained in them has added a lot to the novel.

University Questions

“The Portrait of a Lady is one of the greatest novels about human isolation”. Discuss.
Write a short note on the treatment of sex in The Portrait of a Lady.
What is modernity about The Portrait of a Lady ? Elucidate it with reference to some of the undercurrent themes.

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